Jane Gerber began her psychotherapy practice around 1960 with a focus on personal growth and development, moving away from digging into neuroses — what was wrong — to helping people to live their best lives.
That shift coincided with changes in American culture, a societal shift with such markers as hippies, “flower power,” the Summer of Love, sensitivity training and interest in Zen Buddhism.
“She was very much in the forefront of the whole area of the human potential movement,” said DeLacy Sarantos, who became executive director of the Oasis Center Gerber co-founded in Chicago around 1968.
Gerber’s mentors included Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy, in which patients were urged to deal with the present moment rather than the past, and Virginia Satir, whom Sarantos described as “a genius in family dynamics.”
Former colleague John Banmen said Gerber brought unique skills to her work, both in training other therapists and working with her own patients.
“She could be direct without making people defensive,” Banmen said. “She could get people to trust, to let down their defenses, to deal with what they were trying to avoid.”
Gerber, 98, died March 31 of pneumonia in her home in Presbyterian Homes in Evanston, according to her daughter, Lynn Levenberg.
Gerber, born Jane Schram in St. Louis, moved with her family to Evanston as a toddler and spent the rest of her life there. She graduated from Evanston Township High School and was 18 when she married Merton Levenberg, who died in 1951. Encouraged by her husband, she got a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in 1941.
A second marriage ended in divorce. She later married John Gerber, who died in 1986.
After raising her children, she returned to school, getting a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration in 1959.
“I think the impetus was from her mother, who had a breakdown,” Levenberg said of Gerber’s return to graduate school. “She felt she couldn’t help her own mother. I think her helplessness propelled her to help others.”
Soon after getting her degree in social work, Gerber began seeing patients from a basement office in her Evanston home. In the early 1960s, she visited the Esalen Institute in California and came back with the idea of starting a similar center here to advance personal growth.
In 1968, she and a friend started the Oasis Center for Human Potential. Later known as Oasis Center, it provided a forum for therapists and others to present ideas, to lead encounter and sensitivity groups, and to demonstrate for other therapists its techniques and approaches for working with people.
Gerber was in touch with people in the field across the country and brought several eminent people to Oasis. “She facilitated getting some of those really important people (like Satir and Perls) to Chicago,” Sarantos said.
Gerber herself also taught and worked with people in the healing professions in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, England, France, Israel and Hong Kong, her daughter said. Her topics included Gestalt therapy, family therapy, human sexuality, transitions for widows and single parents, encounters with illness, death and dying, and other life changes.
Banmen said in the 1980s that he and Gerber worked with Satir and others in monthlong summer workshops for therapists in Crested Butte, Colo. The work focused on personal growth.
“We would have them look at their families of origin,” said Banmen, who explained that that was part of stressing the importance of the therapist’s self in working with patients. “So their own background wouldn’t get in the way. So you’d get your act together.”
“She was a very well-educated and experienced therapist, also a group leader. She was also a wise woman and a great friend,” said Maria Gomori, who was a co-author on two of Gerber’s three books, including with Satir and Banmen on 1991’s “The Satir Model: Family Therapy & Beyond.”
The Oasis Center closed in the late 1990s. Gerber continued to practice psychotherapy until about four years ago.
“She had a great sense of humor, she was a great teacher and it was really a gift that she lived,” Gomori said. “A gift to those of us who were close to her.”
Gerber is also survived by two sisters, Miriam Jaffe and Florence Greenberg.
Her son, Jordan Benedict, died in 2014.
No services were held.
Graydon Megan is a freelance reporter.