A photo of a man with gray hair speaking at a podium.
Jack Spiro was the longtime Harry Lyons Distinguished Chair in Judaic Studies at VCU. (Photo contributed by VCU Libraries).

Rabbi Jack Spiro, former Harry Lyons Chair of Judaic Studies at VCU, dies at age 90

His teachings and lectures enthralled students and the Greater Richmond community for decades.

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Remembered as a spiritual leader, professor and community change agent, Rabbi Jack Spiro, Ed.D., the former Harry Lyons Chair of Judaic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, died Nov. 27 at age 90.

In the classroom, lecture hall, sanctuary and at community roundtables, Spiro had an impact on VCU, Richmond and beyond as an academic, clergy and activist.

“Dr. Spiro was a true pillar of our Religious Studies program and shepherded Judaic Studies in the School of World Studies in an incredibly meaningful way,” said Amy L. Rector, Ph.D., director of the school and associate professor of anthropology. “His students and colleagues loved him; his legacy and impact persist in our programs and lives of the students who were lucky enough to take his classes before they graduated.”

Rector highlighted Spiro’s public lectures. Intended for both the university and the broader Richmond community, he presented them for more than 30 years in his academic role.

“He founded an online resource and wrote many books, all with the goal of sharing his knowledge and love of the field beyond just an academic audience,” Rector added.

Spiro considered his academic position, which he took after retirement from 25 years in a full-time clergy role, a “thrilling” next step. He already had been teaching as an adjunct for the VCU religious studies department since he arrived in Richmond in 1972 to serve as spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Ahabah.

Before coming to Virginia’s capital city, Spiro was national director of the Commission on Jewish Education for Reform Congregations. He also had published a book on the dynamics of mourning and grief in Judaism.

“I looked at the VCU religious studies catalog and saw a course titled Death: Myth and Reality. I wrote to the chair, Tom Hall, asking if I could teach this course as an adjunct and sent him my qualifications,” Spiro told VCU News in 2016 on the occasion of presenting his final lecture. “Three or so days later, I received a phone call from him telling me, ‘You’re on!’ I’ve been teaching that course ever since.”

Working in a public institution required Spiro to adopt yet another way of teaching about Judaism.

“VCU is a public and state institution, and therefore teaching courses on Judaism must be taught as objectively as possible,” he said in an article on Beth Ahabah’s website. “However, my appreciation of Judaism is not something I hide, and college students are old enough to accept that. Of course, at VCU my students are primarily non-Jewish, which means I have the additional mitzvah [honor] of enlightening them and altering stereotypes.”

Born and raised in New Orleans, Spiro earned doctorates from Hebrew Union College and the University of Virginia. He served in the U.S. Air Force European Command as a captain. In 1959, when Spiro was a chaplain in the Air Force stationed in London, he and his wife, Marilyn, had their first child, Hillary. In 1961, the couple moved to Israel, where their second child, David, was born. The Spiros then moved to New Jersey and had their third child, Ellen, in 1964.

John Ulmschneider, Ph.D., VCU emeritus dean of libraries and university librarian, remembered Spiro’s “powerful and wide-ranging series of wise, inspiring, moving papers of immense scholarship” that were the Brown-Lyons Lectures he delivered for more than two decades. The topics were varied – from Kabbalah to Jewish-Islamic relations, global anti-semitism to Zionism, atheism to the experience of attending the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial, Jewish humor to the Jewish vision of immortality.

“He brought the deepest learning and insight to the more profound questions we confront in our world, and he did it with enrapturing language and delivery,” Ulmschneider wrote in a guestbook entry on Spiro’s online obituary. “His wry, thorough and quick-witted answers to questions from the audience (especially VCU students) were legendary, delighting all and never failing to illuminate perspectives he just couldn´t fit into his talk. Every lecture left attendees hungry for more.”

Ulmschneider recalled that in the broad, diverse Richmond community beyond VCU, Spiro was a revered and enlightening presence through his lectures, classes and community service.

“His stories left people in awe – he must be the only person ever to have prayed with Elizabeth Taylor at her hospital bedside AND attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann – and his jokes left audiences almost in tears with laughter,” Ulmschneider said. “Dr. Spiro made a gigantic difference to our community and our lives, and he will remain an abiding presence in our memories for as long as we live.”

Spiro’s last Brown-Lyons Lecture in 2016 was entitled “And the Prophetic Message Lives On…”   

“The message is the quintessence of what it means to be human; to live in a civil, caring, responsible society,” Spiro told VCU News.

His involvement in the greater community included serving as chair of the Richmond Human Relations Commission, president of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood and chair of the United Way Appropriations Committee.

In a 2012 VCU News article, Spiro said he felt blessed that life’s roads led him to Richmond, where he found a wonderful community for his family.

“Each place along the way that I’ve taken, each steppingstone, has made a very, very positive difference in my life,” Spiro said. “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.”

Spiro was preceded in death by his wife, Marilyn. Survivors include children Hillary Hawkins (James Hawkins), David Spiro (Annemarie Hensley) and Ellen Spiro (Sydney Mintz); grandchildren Benjamin (Jane), Jordan (Andres), Sophia (Cary), Jake, Maria and Arlo; and four great-grandchildren. 

An obituary can be found via the Richmond Times-Dispatch website.