Josh Genser had asked his wife, Elaina, to marry him three times. The first two times, she declined because he was Jewish and she was Catholic. Never one to back down from complex problems, Genser didn’t give up, and eventually Elaina gave in. They married in 1981 in a union that “worked beautifully and stood the test of time,” according to Rabbi Dean Kertesz of Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond.
It’s a classic love story, but one that also helps to define the life of Genser, whose unrelenting persistence and commitment extended not just to his family but also to the Richmond community, where he displayed limitless dedication to assisting and improving local organizations and underserved residents.
That’s why Elaina and their children were hardly alone in their grief when Genser died suddenly on Monday after suffering from a medical condition. He was 63.
Speaking at his funeral Friday, Rabbi Kertesz noted how Genser, a “wickedly smart” lawyer and Stanford University graduate, could have gone anywhere with his skills. But Genser chose to return to Richmond and give back to the community where he was raised.
While spending three decades as a business attorney in private practice, Genser served as a member on the boards of many local organizations including Rotary, Kiwanis, the Richmond Country Club, Richmond Community Foundation, Chamber of Commerce, Grizzly Peak Fly Fishers’ Club, Spencer Scholarship Trust, Temple Beth Hillel and the Council of Industries.
Genser was credited as central in working with the Richmond Community Foundation to develop a program in Richmond that reclaims and rehabs abandoned, blighted properties before preparing the homes for ownership by local, underserved families. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the program as one of their national models. EPA Director Michael Regan recently toured the facility, said Jim Becker, who was a close friend of Genser’s and spoke at the funeral.
“He made us all feel like we were his best friend,” Becker said of Genser, adding, “He was generous with his time and his talents as well as his resources.”
Genser had “no greater pleasure” than lifting up communities, echoed another of his close friends David A. Brown, an attorney who is also highly active in the community. Brown suffers from depression, and “Josh was always there calling me to come out to drink whiskey (one of Genser’s many passions), or to go to a concert or dinner.”
“He knew it would help me,” said Brown. Genser was an expert on many things, but was chiefly “an expert at finding the joy in life,” added Brown.
Genser was described as someone who worked to solve complex problems in a way that lifted people up and improved organizations. Along with serving on boards, committees and commissions, he took youth in the Richmond Police Activities League on annual fishing outings (fly fishing was another of his passions), helped out in the soup kitchen at the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program shelter, and lent his expertise to a scholarship program that sent underserved local students to college, friends said.
He thought and acted locally and also globally. With Richmond Rotary, he helped build and repair schools in Mexico. With fellow community advocate Membere Aklilu, he helped build an orphanage for schools in Ethiopia.
“Community is an overused words these days, but Josh took it seriously,” Rabbi Kertesz said.
Added friend and colleague Eric Zell of Richmond-based Zell & Associates, “Josh was a leader in the true sense of the word.”
“With an energy and a passion, both in business and in the community, Josh always fought for what he thought was in the best interest of all of Richmond,” Zell said. “He will be truly missed by all who knew him.”
Genser was born at Kaiser Oakland in 1958 to Joseph and Clara-Rae (née Goldberg) and was raised in the Mira Vista neighborhood. He attended Mira Vista Elementary, Adams Junior High, and graduated from Kennedy High in 1976. During high school, he traveled statewide for debate tournaments and lettered in tennis, although friends lovingly described him as more of a nerd than an athlete.
Genser went on to graduate from Stanford with a Master’s Degree in Economics and received his law degree from UC Berkeley, according to Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who described Genser as a “passionate Democrat” who was also “a consummate example and champion of how the business community can play a critical role in advancing social and environmental justice and serving the community.”
Jerry Overaa, who worked closely with Genser in founding the Richmond Development Company, said Genser taught him about the importance of community, “some of which I’d forgotten.”
Overaa was not alone in saying that whatever Genser loved, Genser fiercely shared with his family, friends and neighbors. For one, he loved everything about whiskey, not just its taste but the history and the ways it is made. But he also loved to share his knowledge of the spirit by hosting whiskey events that served at times as fundraisers for charitable causes. He also enjoyed poker, camping, golf, bowling and more.
“That infectious sense of humor, love of life, everything he did he wanted to share,” Overaa said.
Genser’s greatest passion, of course, was his family. According to his obituary, he leaves behind his wife, Elaina Spitaels-Genser of Richmond, their son Joseph Genser and his partner Koji Outi of Emeryville; his daughter Janet Genser, of Ann Arbor, MI; his mother, Clara-Rae Genser; brothers-in-law Lynn Maack and Russell Pagle; Lidia Perez, who became a third parent to the Genser children; and his loyal dogs, Java and Cashew. Josh was pre-deceased by his father, Judge Joseph Genser, as well as his sisters Sandi Genser-Maack and Mori Genser-Pagle, the obituary read.
The Genser family “have been pillars of the Richmond community for decades,” Zell said.
Even in death, Genser will continue to make an impact in his local community. Community members are encouraged to contribute to the Joshua Genser Memorial Fund at the Richmond Community Foundation here.
“His legacy will continue to live on,” the Foundation said.