Or Shalom president dies suddenly at 50

At her youngest son Eric's bar mitzvah on Nov. 11, Brenda Boyd Spiegel behaved as any proud, nervous, elated parent would.

"I was in the pulpit and I looked down at her in the front row a number of times. She looked proud, occasionally teary — especially when the talk was of her late husband — but mostly a smile from ear to ear," recalled Rabbi Pamela Frydman Baugh of San Francisco's Or Shalom Jewish Community. "There was a live band and she was really having a good time. She was getting down. You never would have thought anything was wrong."

But something was wrong. Just eight days later, Spiegel's older son, 16-year-old Adam, took her to the emergency room with an apparent case of pneumonia. Spiegel's affliction turned out to be an undiscovered case of multiple myeloma, a serious condition of malignant tumors in the bone marrow. On Monday, Nov. 20, Spiegel died.

She was only 50 years old.

Spiegel was not Jewish — born in Salt Lake City, she was raised Mormon — but she was deeply involved with the local Jewish community. She was a four-year board member and past chair at Or Shalom and, at the time of her death, Or Shalom's president.

The unconventional nature of Spiegel's ascendancy to the leadership of a Jewish Renewal congregation did not go unnoticed by Or Shalom's rabbi, board and congregants.

In Spiegel's case, however, those who knew her said her drive, personality and devotion were more than enough to earn her the job.

"We did not take lightly Brenda's stepping into the presidency, and we looked carefully at the religious issues — as did Brenda herself," Baugh recalled. "We decided Brenda had special gifts and was especially involved in the Jewish community, so in lieu thereof, we welcomed her leadership. She took the presidency and considered it to be a great honor."

Fellow board members and congregants agreed that Spiegel's position as president was uncommon but not undeserved.

"Yeah, it was unusual, yet she was so involved with Brandeis [Hillel Day School] and the congregation," said Barbara Wein, an Or Shalom board member for the past 2-1/2 years. "It's not as though she came in here unknowledgeable about the Jewish community, the High Holidays and all of that. She was certainly accepted as the leader of our congregation."

Spiegel's commitment to raise her sons Jewish was only strengthened when her husband, Bruce, died in 1992 after a heart attack. She served as president of the Parents' Association and on the board of Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, where Eric is a student, Adam a graduate.

"She was not Jewish, but my brother was, and when he was still alive, they decided to raise the boys Jewish," said Bruce Spiegel's sister, Ivy Barr, who, along with her husband, Jamie, will serve as Eric and Adam's legal guardians. "That was a tremendous effort for her. She really immersed herself; she became very, very involved. She knew more Hebrew than I did."

Spiegel, who had studied Judaism with Baugh, also contributed to the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation every year, and always volunteered for the annual Super Sunday drive.

Barr, a resident of Westchester County, N.Y., is currently living with Adam and Eric Spiegel in the family's San Francisco home. Barr will be joined shortly by Spiegel's 85-year-old mother, Joyce Boyd, a resident of Salt Lake City.

Friends and family members remembered Spiegel, a registered nurse and nurse educator at San Francisco State University, as a no-nonsense mover and shaker with a heart of gold.

"She had a great sense of humor and felt impatience toward anyone who couldn't move forward in the face of change. Her answer to any situation was 'I can do that,'" said Rabbi Henry Shreibman, head of school at Brandeis Hillel. "She was a very, very close friend and confidante. She was an incredible gift to me personally, as well as the community I can only represent."

Donations can be made to the Bruce and Brenda Spiegel Memorial Fund at Brandeis Hillel Day School, 655 Brotherhood Way, S.F., CA 94132; the Brenda Boyd Spiegel Memorial Fund at Or Shalom Jewish Community, 20 Woodside Ave., S.F., CA 94127; or the scholarship fund at the School of Nursing, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway, S.F., CA 94132.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.