Peter Olson (green shirt) and Ilan Vitemberg relaxing in Provincetown, MA, on Peter's 60th birthday. Credit: Sara Rodriguez-Story

In the 1980s, Peter Olson was a volunteer with Witness for Peace in Managua, a group founded by American activists to bear witness to the Reagan administration’s policies in war-torn Nicaragua. He was one of the first long-term volunteers to host delegations of visiting Americans. 

In 1989, he was on a break and traveling from Guatemala to Mexico with his close friend and colleague on a bus crowded with civilians, soldiers, and livestock, when a man asked Peter if he had an extra quetzal, as he didn’t have enough money to make it to the border. Peter obliged. After they all crossed over into Mexico on a different, less-crowded bus, Peter saw the man again, sitting in the back, and left his friend to talk to him.

Peter asked the man if he’d noticed the sunset on his side of the bus. The man then asked Peter if he’d seen the rainbow on his side. As they connected over their shared interests in dance and creative movement and art, Peter’s friend began wondering what happened to him. When Peter eventually returned to his seat, he said “He’s really cute. Can we keep him?” 

That was the start of a 33-year love story between Peter and Ilan, who spent the majority of those years—just over 20 of them—living together in Oakland, on 39th Avenue in Redwood Heights.

On paper, it might have seemed like an unlikely pairing. From age 7, Peter was raised in Fremont, the youngest of the five children of Karl and Peggy Olson, who were “a city boy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a farm girl from Indiana,” according to Peter’s older brother, Larry.

Ilan was raised on Kibbutz Megiddo in northern Israel, one of two children of Javiva and Hershele Vitemberg, immigrants to Israel from Argentina. His mother had fled Germany on the eve of the Holocaust.

But to those who knew them, it was impossible to think of one without the other. Their love was transcendent, said one friend.

Peter Olson and Ilan Vitemberg at their wedding in 2008. Credit: Facebook

“They occupied a unique space in everyone’s constellation. You won’t find one person who knew them who wouldn’t say their love was different than anything I’ve seen,” said their close friend, Jenn Rader. “Sometimes you might encounter a couple whose love would be a cocoon, and people would stand at a distance and look at it, but what they did was unique. The love they had for one other was wide open with no membrane, no barrier. The love they shared created an energetic field that invited and welcomed everyone in.”

(While this writer was not part of their inner circle, she was among the many who could say they were among her absolute favorite people because if you knew them, chances were you probably felt that way about them, too.)

When they married in 2008 (legally, though like many LGBT couples, they had several non-legal weddings preceding that one), rather than traditional wedding vows, they asked each other: “Do you promise to work towards ensuring human rights for all people of the world?”

They each brought their uniqueness to the work they did. Peter spent over 20 years as a therapist at the Gladman Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in Oakland, where he worked with people with chronic mental illness who spend much—if not all—of their lives institutionalized. Sandy Schniewind, his boss during that time, recalled that when she first checked his references, the person she spoke to said, “You will be a better person for knowing Peter.” 

“It’s true, I am,” she said. “He was a man of such incredible integrity and passion and compassion and empathy and fun. He was really able to connect with our clients on this very human level.”

Always one to notice the beauty in the smallest instant or item, “the littlest moments could be hugely monumental and therapeutic,” for the patients he was working with, she said. She described how once he got a man who barely left his chair—she had never seen him leave the facility before—to go on an outing to fly kites.

“He loved to open up people’s eyes to the beauty he saw in life,” she said.

Peter was a lover of salvaged redwood and other repurposed materials. The home he shared with Ilan, while probably not the design aesthetic of many, was decorated with so many whimsical touches, like colanders repurposed as light fixtures, as just one example. He built the entire kitchen himself, much of it with salvaged wood and stone. 

From left: A light fixture fashioned from redwood bark, a ceiling lamp made from a colander, and a bedside lamp made from recycled parts, all made by Peter Olson. Credits: Alix Wall

While pre-COVID he was regular at his local YMCA, mostly active in a boot-camp group from there, some members of that group stuck together during COVID, meeting at 5 a.m. on the lawn of Oakland Tech, to exercise together (OT, for Otters, came from the initials for Oakland Tech.) While many of his friends would say things like “he was the best person I knew,” they were also just as likely to covet his muscular arms.

Meanwhile, Ilan found his place professionally in the Jewish community. A go-to person in the field of Israel education, he brought the perspective of someone who recognized Israel as the sanctuary it was for Jews like his mother, who made it out of Europe just in time, while also acknowledging its troubled founding; his own kibbutz was built on the ruins of an Arab village.

He was equally adept at teaching children, teens, and adults. For adults, he dreamt up classes about Israeli pop culture that only he would come up with—such as Israeli society as seen through its entries in the Eurovision Song Contest, and representations of Israeli masculinity through Israeli television shows. When he directed a Jewish teen leadership seminar, which he did for a number of years, nearly every teen who participated came away feeling a connection with him that they had with few other adults.

Many of those teens are now in their thirties, and say that his mentorship and impact on them shaped the adults they turned out to be. Those in education say he was a guiding light. He took them seriously and treated them as adults. He created a safe space, even for those feeling at their most socially awkward.

“He was multifaceted and talented and really was so able to connect deeply with people,” said Jenni Mangel, who worked with him for years at San Francisco’s Jewish Learning Works.

But he didn’t only teach about Israel. As someone who couldn’t pass by nearly any body of water without jumping in, he also taught swimming lessons at UC Berkeley, and water aerobics at the YMCA. When the pandemic hit, his water aerobics students didn’t want to stop, so he led them on land, starting each session in a different costume.

He was a doodler, known for simple, colorful figures. He drew them as a border on their bedroom curtain (surrounding the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself, 31”) and on his pair of Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers.

Ilan was known for doodling quirky characters. Above are his Chuck Taylor sneakers and a bedroom curtain adorned with figures and a poem by Walt Whitman. Credit: Alix Wall

Together, the couple formed a puppet duo, Up a Tree Puppetry, as they both loved children and knew puppets were an automatic entry point in connecting with them. They performed for Jewish organizations in the Bay Area, brought their puppetry to Syrian refugee children in Greece, and more recently, Peter went to Bangladesh. Peter made all their puppets and sets.

An old suitcase filled with Peter and Ilan’s hand puppets, which they used in their duo performances under the moniker, Up a Tree Puppetry. Credit: Alix Wall

Peter wrote poetry, and he and Ilan regularly read poetry out loud to each other.

They were practitioners of yoga and acro-yoga, and once did sun salutations while waiting for a flight to Hawaii at Oakland airport (much to the dismay of one of their godchildren, who was traveling with them and couldn’t have been more embarrassed. But at the same time, he could appreciate how comfortable they were being themselves in any setting.)

They had seven godchildren in total.

They were legendary hosts. Their house—and particularly a giant backyard with a vegetable garden that mostly Ilan tended—was the venue for numerous celebrations and gatherings over the years.

Ilan and Peter’s backyard vegetable garden in Redwood Heights. Credit: Alix Wall

When Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay started a program supporting LGBT refugees to settle in the East Bay, those running the organization started by asking people they knew to host new arrivals.

“We checked out their amazing, funky house, and being who they were, they were right for it,” said Avi Rose. “Besides the generosity, they had the kind of cultural respect and heart and sophistication that it takes to do this.”

Peter and Ilan hosted a succession of more than half a dozen such refugees, from Africa and the Middle East.

“Some of them are not easy, as it takes a while to adjust,” Rose said, who was then director of JFCS. “They were generous hosts and gave people a lot of freedom, but also the kind of practical and emotional support they needed to build a life.”

They also made a mark on their Redwood Heights neighborhood. Marty Wehner and his wife Chantelise Pells became fast friends with the couple, bonding at first over their love of gardening and salvaged wood.

In 2017, the couple’s black lab Duke escaped when Marty left the gate open by accident; a car hit Duke in the snout, taking out several of his teeth.

Long concerned with the cars speeding by on their street, Peter and Ilan took it upon themselves to get permission from the city to paint a mural on the pavement.

“Peter came up with a beautiful design, and being the super organizer that he is, figured out how to do it paint-by-numbers—he designed it so the whole community could do it together,” Marty, who got the paint donated, said. They held a party and picnic; probably 100 people came to help paint the mural with trees, birds, and a banner saying, “What’s the Hurry?”

Peter and Ilan led an effort on their street to paint a mural encouraging drivers to slow down after a neighbor’s dog was hit and injured by a speeding car. Credit: Alix Wall

This past summer, Ilan traveled to Israel to visit his aging parents. On his way back, he came down with such a case of severe COVID, that he never recovered. He died of complications from long COVID on Sept. 30 at age 57.

As much as Peter was grieving, he was resolved to learn how to forge ahead without his beloved Ilan, he told his loved ones. 

“I think and feel it would be very helpful and important to have someone to work with…someone to witness and accompany me as I assimilate the impact of our loss…someone to help me as I continue to seek and build meaning and purpose with my life…to help me clarify and be awake and present and courageous,” he wrote to a close friend on Oct. 26. 

On Oct. 30, Peter participated in a memorial service for Ilan held at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

On the morning of Oct. 31, he dropped a friend off at Oakland airport and then went to Redwood Regional Park to go for a run before meeting two of his siblings for lunch. He never made it there. He collapsed from a cardiac event in the park and died suddenly, at age 65.

Their absence, exactly a month apart, has left an enormous hole in the many communities of which they were a part.

Now, their closest friends and family members are shuffling in and out of their home, determining next steps.

They were not only the ones who you knew would always show up to take you to the airport at the ungodly hour, but the ones who made any occasion more fun just by their presence. One thing heard again and again in different words was this sentiment shared by Jenn Rader: “There was a transcendent, sparkly quality to each of them separately, and then what they created together.”

“There were very few people in the world like them,” their neighbor, Marty, concluded. “They had the biggest hearts and more love in them than anyone on the planet. They were just the kind of people you would want to be your neighbors for your whole life. And we thought they were going to be.” 

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is a contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s Nosh, she is a regular contributor to the New York Times' Vows column, and her writing can be found in The San Francisco Chronicle, Edible East Bay, and more. Alix is also the founder of The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is producer/writer of a documentary in progress called “The Lonely Child.”