Scholar a celebrated voice of inspiration to community

Jack Spiro delivers Annual Brown-Lyons Lecture March 29

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Jack Spiro, D.H.L., Ed.D., came to Richmond looking for a nice quiet place to raise his family. It was 1973, and the young rabbi had already seen the world as a chaplain in the Air Force, a student in Israel and the national director of education for Reform Judaism.

After traveling all over the world delivering lectures, Spiro realized he was moving farther away from his family. He wanted a location "with a congregation that was large enough that I could be very active in a variety of ways," he said. "And that brought us to Richmond."

Spiro joined Virginia Commonwealth University as an adjunct professor that same year. Today, he holds the Harry Lyons Distinguished Chair of Judaic Culture, directs the university's Center for Judaic Studies and edits its international online publication, Menorah Review.

This week, Spiro delivers the 27th Annual Brown-Lyons Lecture, sponsored by the VCU Friends of the Library, the VCU Center for Judaic Studies, the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, the Richmond Jewish Foundation and the Weinstein JCC.  The lecture will be held on Thursday, March 29, at 7:30 p.m. in the Singleton Center for the Performing Arts. The event is free and open to the public, but because seating is limited, registration is required.

"Dr. Spiro is one of Virginia's most learned, eloquent and inspiring public figures, a leader who, in enlightening us intellectually, brings us all together spiritually," said John E. Ulmschneider, university librarian. "He is one of VCU's most cherished teachers and lecturers, and a celebrated voice of challenge, reason, and inspiration in our community."

Spiro has delivered the lecture for more than two decades.

"I remember the first [few] years, we had it on the fourth floor of the library with about 25 people showing up," Spiro recalled. "And then … it kept getting more and more expensive to bring people into town."

Spiro realized the only way the lecture series would continue was if local lecturers were found. The job fell to him more often than not. 

"And that just kept building up and building up until it became very successful," Spiro said. "That's how I took over the lecture — because I ran out of money. I mean I have a big ego, but it had nothing to do with ego at the beginning. It had to do with poverty."

Spiro credits VCU Libraries and Creative Services with the lecture's success over the years. He has a unique chemistry with his colleagues, including Matthew Phillips, a Creative Services graphic designer who has designed the lecture artwork for nine years, and Antonia FD Vassar, assistant director of Giving & Stewardship with the Libraries.

"All of his lectures — whether they be serious or lighthearted — they're always a challenge. There have been a few that have given me pause," Phillips said. "He's always been very willing to talk to me about what the lecture was about. He's always been wonderfully open and conversant when I've had questions."

Despite being one of the largest events sponsored by the VCU Libraries, the Brown-Lyons Lecture is the easiest to coordinate, Vassarsaid.

"This is due in large part to Dr. Spiro's enthusiasm and grace in collaborating with us to present the lecture," she said. "Dr. Spiro combines wide-ranging and deep knowledge with wide-ranging appeal. His lectures educate and entertain an incredibly varied audience: VCU students, community members from around Richmond and individuals and leaders from faith organizations. He always manages to hit that sweet spot of presenting material that is scholarly yet understandable to the layperson."

This year's topic, “Jerusalem: A Tale of Three Cities,” focuses on Jerusalem as a holy city for the world's dominant monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"Historically, for many, many, many centuries … just in terms of the way all three religions developed chronologically, Jerusalem has been of great importance," Spiro said. "It has been of great importance on different levels for all three different religions."

Each year's lecture topic comes from Spiro's personal experiences or "whatever grabs me each year. And I don't know how that happens. It's more something that comes out of my unconscious as a topic," he said.

His life has been rife with rich experiences that help influence those topics.

"I had many stops before [coming to Richmond]," Spiro said.

Born in New Orleans, Spiro attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he became a rabbi. He then served as a chaplain with the rank of captain in the Air Force, which stationed him in London for three years.

"I was in a very, very fortunate position, because I was able to work for a synagogue there, too, while also being a chaplain in the Air Force," Spiro said.

After leaving the Air Force, Spiro and his wife, Marilyn, who had one child at the time, wanted to take advantage of being overseas.

"Being so close and yet so far from Israel, we wanted to experience living in Israel before we came back to the States," he said. "So we packed up everything in London, got discharged and went to Israel for a year."

When the Spiros returned stateside, he took a position with a congregation in New Jersey.

"That brought me so close to Manhattan, and I was asked by the Reform movement to become the national director of education for Reform Judaism. And I spent six years doing that in Manhattan, traveling all over the world, doing lectures, publishing, editing, et cetera."

Once he realized he wanted to travel less, he found a congregation in Richmond and began teaching at VCU. He became a full-time professor a few years later and took on the Menorah Review magazine. Once again, the lack of funding led to another opportunity.

In the days before the Internet became commonplace, Spiro was having trouble producing the magazine three times a year with little funding. He asked Stephen D. Gottfredson, Ph.D., then the dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, for more money to fund the publication. Gottfredson shocked him by offering him the Harry Lyons Chair, the first chair in the College.

"And I had to sit down in the first chair I could find because I was so amazingly and happily shocked with that response," Spiro said.

Spiro feels blessed that life's roads led him to Richmond, where he found a wonderful community for his family. Marilyn received her doctorate at VCU and is a clinical psychologist. His daughter is medical director of Sheltering Arms, while his son is a lawyer with Hirschler Fleischer. His second daughter, who grew up in Richmond, followed in Spiro's teaching footsteps, becoming a professor at the University of Texas.

"My life has been filled with dumb luck – you know, timing. That's been very important," Spiro said. "Going to London made a big difference. Each place along the way that I've taken, each stepping stone has made a very, very positive difference in my life. All the way to 35 years of teaching part-time or full-time at VCU. Being in the right town, with the right university. All these things really helped in terms of a fulfilling life."