Rabbi Malcolm Sparer died April 1 at the age of 93.
Rabbi Malcolm Sparer died April 1 at the age of 93.

Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, Board of Rabbis president, interfaith pioneer, dies at 93

When she was a child, if Shoshana Sparer Manning wanted a quick answer to a question, she’d ask her mother. If she had 30 minutes for a detailed philosophical explanation, she’d ask her father, Rabbi Malcolm Sparer.

Over his long life and career, Sparer served as a pulpit rabbi, hospital chaplain, Soviet Jewry activist and pioneer in interfaith relations. As head of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, he was a convener and consensus builder, a tireless fighter for social justice and Jewish security.

Sparer died April 1 in Fremont due to complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 93.

“He was a very generous man, to a fault,” said daughter Shoshana, who lives in Fremont.

Added Rita Semel, co-founder of San Francisco Interfaith Council: “He really was a very special person. He was an Orthodox rabbi, but he was very welcoming and very interested in becoming involved with other people, other religions.”

His 18 years presiding over the Board of Rabbis Northern California, starting in the late 1970s, made him one of the most connected and involved executives in the local Jewish community. His commitment to interfaith outreach made him an indispensable figure in the broader community, as well, whether working with civic leaders to tackle homelessness, or his regular Wednesday golf game with leaders from the Catholic, Episcopal and Greek Orthodox communities.

Rabbi Malcolm Sparer
Rabbi Malcolm Sparer

Born in New York, Sparer grew up in an observant home in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. His father died in the midst of the Depression, when Malcolm was 11, so he had to find work to help the family survive. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy, serving during World War II.

After the war, he realized his life’s calling and enrolled in Yeshiva University in New York City. After his ordination, he married his wife, Erna Reichl (known as Kitty), a German Jew who went behind enemy lines as a partisan, and later immigrated to the United States. The couple moved around the country, with Sparer serving congregations in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Iowa, Los Angeles and, finally, San Francisco, where the couple and their four children moved in 1969.

Sparer served as rabbi at Congregation Chevra Thilim for a few years, but after being injured in an assault during a break-in, he left the bimah, finding other ways to serve. He became a chaplain at the San Francisco VA hospital (a post he held for more than 30 years), and he served for a while as a part-time rabbi at the San Francisco Jewish Home.

And when the Soviet Jewry movement took off in the early 1970s, he was at the front lines, protesting outside the Soviet consulate on Green Street.

“He would handcuff himself to the Russian consulate,” said daughter Shoshana. “I remember Mom [telling him], ‘If you get thrown in jail, don’t call me, I’m not picking you up.’ He did get thrown in jail.”

In 1977, he took on the presidency of the NorCal Board of Rabbis, serving until 1996.
It was in that capacity that he was invited to meet with San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and other area clergy to help with the city’s growing homelessness crisis. He agreed to help.

His first stop was the office of Semel, then serving as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “He said, ‘The Protestants and the Catholics are doing this and we have to do it, too,’” Semel recalled. “That was the beginning of the Interfaith Council.”

Deeply committed to interfaith work, Sparer made it personal by taking part in a regular weekly golf foursome with S.F.-based Catholic Archbishop John Quinn, Episcopal Bishop William Swing and Greek Orthodox Bishop Anthony Gergiannakis.

Rabbi Jacob Traub, who conducted Sparer’s funeral, was a close friend of Sparer’s for more than half a century. The longtime San Francisco Orthodox rabbi said he and Sparer “had a similar outlook in terms of sustaining the Jewish community here.”

As a specialist in kashrut, Traub once recruited his friend for a stakeout.

“We received rumors that a kosher butcher at that time was selling nonkosher meat, and we tried to investigate as best we could,” Traub recalled. “Seems that he was getting deliveries in the middle of the night, when everything was quiet, and quickly taking the stuff into his store, switching the tags. Rabbi Sparer and I staked him out, simple as that.”

Sure enough, around 3 a.m. a truck pulled up. A delivery of nonkosher livers had arrived. The detective team of Sparer and Traub busted the perps. “We walked into the store and confronted [the store owner] while he was doing his nefarious deeds,” Traub added. “That was one thing that we did and the story lived on.”

Shoshana remembers her father as someone who was resolutely committed to his calling. And to his family. “My dad’s hobby was work,” she said. “I never saw him relaxing on the couch reading a book. But he and my mom were married 25 years. I learned what love is by watching them.”

Sparer was dealt a terrible blow when Kitty died in 1990. He moved to Sonoma in retirement, but later suffered more sorrows with the deaths of two of his adult children, Arthur and Jennifer. But he found joy in his surviving family, including his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Said Semel: “He cared about people, whoever they were, and he was willing to open his heart and mind and services. His legacy is that of a warm and giving human being.”

Rabbi Malcom Sparer is survived by daughter Shoshana Sparer Manning of Fremont and Ruth Sparer Stern of Sunland, California, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Dan Pine

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