Sanford Rosen, founding rabbi of Peninsula Temple Beth El, dies

As Rabbi Sanford Rosen lay dying in a Fullerton hospital last week, his daughter, Louise Rosen Byer, raced back to California from her Pittsburgh, Pa., home to be with him. On the plane, she recalled the time her father visited her in Santa Cruz, where she went to college.

“I was sick,” she remembers. “He came down and took care of me for a couple of days. At one point he said, ‘Let me just put my hand on your back.’ And I felt for the first time the power of healing in my father’s hand. When he was dying in the hospital, the warmth was still in his hand. He had this very loving touch.”

When he died Saturday, Aug. 26 at age 86 from a stroke, Rosen left behind a legacy of caring that spread far beyond the San Mateo area he called home for many years.

It was there in 1951 that he helped found Peninsula Temple Beth El. From then until his retirement in 1982, Rosen was a community leader, serving not only as Beth El senior rabbi but as president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in Selma, Ala., and chairing the San Mateo County Child Guidance Clinic Commission.

But those who knew him best remember a caring rabbi. “He loved helping people,” says son Ron Rosen. “Every weekend he’d go to the hospital. I remember when Willie Mays hit four home runs in a game, but I heard it on the radio in the parking lot at Peninsula Hospital. Dad was always visiting people.”

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1920, Rosen was the son of Polish immigrants. His father put himself through medical school to become a physician, and he hoped his son would someday take over the practice.

But the family doctor suggested young Sanford take up the study of Hebrew to improve his poor vision. Thus began Rosen’s lifelong passion for Jews and Judaism.

He later attended Western Reserve University, majoring in English and philosophy. As an undergrad, Rosen attended a dinner for the English department. Volunteering as a server that night was a young woman named Melba Mells. She caught Rosen’s eye and he later asked her out. At the end of their first date he said to her, “I’m going to marry you.”

The two married in 1944 and were inseparable partners for the next 62 years.

After his ordination from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Rosen relocated to Bakersfield in 1947 to found Temple Beth El. Four years later, he and Melba moved to San Mateo to launch a new Reform synagogue, also called Beth El.

For the first few years, congregants met at churches and held High Holy Day services at theaters. But in 1957, Rosen led the effort to build a synagogue on Alameda de las Pulgas, where it remains today.

Rosen was also instrumental in launching Camp Swig in Saratoga.

His passion for social justice led him to a prominent role among Bay Area rabbis involved in the civil rights movement. He was among several clergy to introduce Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally at the Cow Palace in the mid-1960s. He also marched with King in Alabama, which led to a close call.

“He and a few ministers wandered off and got lost,” says Ron Rosen. “A guy with a big monkey wrench started following them. They were scared to death. But out of the blue comes a National Guard jeep. He almost got himself killed then.”

Beyond the social activism, friends and loved ones remember the quieter moments. “The core of his work was this calling,” says his daughter. “He had so many gifts for deep intellectual thought. He loved to teach. He loved telling stories. When he was in the act of blessing others, there was kind of internal peace that came through him.”

Ron Rosen recalls the time Emanuel Leplin, a noted violinist with the San Francisco Symphony, was stricken with polio. The rabbi visited him at the hospital, where Leplin was languishing in an iron lung. “He walked into the room and just sat there. He couldn’t speak for 15 minutes and finally said he’d come back another time. He came back a few weeks later and again my dad couldn’t speak.”

Leplin came out of the hospital a quadriplegic. But he continued to write music. “One day my dad’s reading the [San Francisco] Chronicle,” continues Ron Rosen, “and he reads about a concert of tone poems by Leplin. At the end [of the article] it says the inspiration for this was Leplin’s rabbi, Sanford Rosen.”

The rabbi soon paid Leplin a visit to ask why he would dedicate the music to him. “Leplin said, ‘Everyone who came to visit me said, “Buck up, everything is going to be OK.” But you couldn’t even speak. I could see how much you were hurting. I decided I would do something that would make you feel better.'”

When Rosen retired from Beth El, he made his replacement, Rabbi Alan Berg, feel welcome and at ease. “He was one of the greatest partners a new rabbi could have wanted,” says Berg. “He left a great legacy here to build upon.”

After retiring, Rosen continued to teach, offering classes on Judaism at San Jose State University and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He also served in the Naval Chaplaincy and toured the world serving as ship’s rabbi for Royal Viking Cruise Line.

At a memorial service Thursday, Aug. 31 at Beth El, Berg read a poem by the late San Francisco Rabbi Alvin Fine, a poem Rosen read many times at memorial services at which he officiated.

It reads in part: “Life is a journey … Until, looking backward or ahead/We see that victory lies/Not at some high place along the way/But in having made the journey, stage by stage.”

Rosen is survived by his wife, Melba, of Fullerton; son Ron of South Pasadena; daughter Louise Rosen Byer of Pittsburgh, Pa.; and grandchildren Alissa and Jacob Garcia.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.