Barbara Rosenberg with President Ronald Reagan. (Photo/Courtesy Michael Rosenberg)
Barbara Rosenberg with President Ronald Reagan. (Photo/Courtesy Michael Rosenberg)

Philanthropist Barbara Rosenberg, a ‘force of nature,’ dies at 91 

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Barbara Cohen Rosenberg, who family, friends and colleagues describe as a passionate and generous “force of nature,” was a philanthropist, volunteer and professional educator devoted to the Jewish community locally and abroad. A loving wife, mother and grandmother, she died May 4 at her San Francisco home. She was 91.

Barbara Cohen Rosenberg. (Photo/Courtesy)
Barbara Cohen Rosenberg (Photo/Courtesy)

“She was quite a woman, a real spit-fire dynamo,” said son Peter Rosenberg. “Very educated, highly intelligent, a voracious reader and a big proponent of education and Jewish education.”

“What a great lady,” said Rabbi Howard Ruben, head of school at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco that Barbara Rosenberg was instrumental in establishing in 2001. “She was radiant, and her radiance both illuminated and lightened the spirit.”

Together with her late husband, Richard Rosenberg, who died in 2023, Barbara Rosenberg supported a wide variety of Bay Area Jewish and non-Jewish causes, notably the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, where their names are on the Barbara and Richard Rosenberg Family Center, and UCSF, where they are remembered through both the Barbara and Richard Rosenberg Children’s Garden at the Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco and the Barbara and Richard Rosenberg Cancer Resource Suite at the Bakar Precision Cancer Medicine Building.

A professional educator who was deeply devoted to the Jewish community in the Bay Area, U.S. and Israel, she served in many lay leadership roles. She was president of the Bureau of Jewish Education (now Jewish LearningWorks) and president of the Campus for Jewish Living when it was known as the Jewish Home. She served on the boards of JCHS and Lehrhaus Judaica and on the advisory board of the Jewish studies department at Stanford University. She was a trustee of Brandeis University, her alma mater.

As devoted as she was to these and other causes, Rosenberg is remembered by her sons and friends as “whip-smart,” as one friend described, and as “lots of fun,” as several put it. She called herself “Fun Barb,” which was the name people heard when they left messages on her answering machine. She loved to give gifts and throw parties for those she cared for. Even in her later years, she drove a convertible sports car.

“She had a great sense of humor and was always up for a good time,” said son Peter Rosenberg.

Born Barbara Cohen on July 13, 1932, in Fall River, Massachusetts, she came from humble beginnings. Her father succeeded and failed at a number of ventures over the years. Even so, she made her way to Brandeis University, earning a bachelor’s in English, and then to Harvard University, where she earned a master’s degree.

Armed with a teaching credential, she taught high school English in White Plains, New York. That’s where she met up again with fellow Fall River native Richard Rosenberg, who had taken her to his high school junior prom. They married in 1956. Soon afterward her husband, an officer in the Navy, was stationed in San Francisco, so they moved to the city that became their home for the rest of their lives.

The couple had two sons, both of whom became investment bankers: Peter Rosenberg, 62, of Marin County, and Michael Rosenberg, 64, of Los Angeles.

As Richard Rosenberg built his post-military career, eventually becoming chairman and CEO of Bank of America, she pursued her own career interests. She taught English at Terra Linda High School in Marin County, then was in charge of curriculum development for San Rafael public schools, during which time she got a doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco.

Her love of education colored much of her philanthropy and volunteer work. While her husband “got most of the accolades,” according to Michael Rosenberg, it was her insistence that led to the couple’s support of institutions including JCHS, San Francisco State University and Brandeis University, where they funded the Rosenberg Institute for Global Finance.

She was radiant, and her radiance both illuminated and lightened the spirit.

Philanthropic consultant Phyllis Cook knew her for many years and served with her on the board of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

“She cared about education and the Jewish community,” Cook said. “At the BJE, she tried to bring Jewish education into places it hadn’t been before.”

Cook describes her as “a one-person operation,” saying that Rosenberg was “intelligent, competent, goal-oriented and had a boldness and courage about her that many community leaders do not.”

She was always public about her Judaism, Cook said. “She had great passion about being Jewish at a time when not everyone in the Bay Area was comfortable doing that.”

“There is a very special place in my heart for Barbara Rosenberg,” said Daniel Ruth, longtime president and CEO of the Jewish Home.

When he was hired in 2002, he said, Rosenberg, who had been on his search committee, “made it a point” to invite him to functions and dinners, to introduce him to community leaders both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“She wanted me to be successful,” he said. “She’d literally call me up and say, ‘This dinner is on such and such a date. I think it could benefit you for the following reasons.’”

“She was very warm,” he added. “She could also be tough if you didn’t follow up on something. But her natural demeanor was warm, always with a smile on her face.”

For Rosenberg, it wasn’t enough to serve on a board. She had to become deeply involved with the people aided by organizations.

While serving on the Jewish Home board, she would throw birthday parties for the residents. When longtime friend David Friedman joined that board, she was president. He recalled that she “always made board meetings fun” but more than that, she drove home the message that the Jewish Home was all about the residents. She once asked every board member to come early to a meeting so they could visit a resident, hear about the person’s life and get to know him or her.

“The fact that she was smart was only the beginning,” Friedman said. “It was her heart and soul that were so special. There was a twinkle about her.”

“She was one of those people you just automatically liked,” said longtime friend and fellow philanthropist Barbara Bakar.

Bakar recalled that whenever her parents or sister would visit from Florida, Rosenberg would take them out for dinner and give them little gifts. “She didn’t have to do that,” Bakar said. “She exuded warmth.”

Peter Rosenberg remembers his mother as “very generous,” always opening her home to people. “She treated everyone as family,” he said.

Michael Rosenberg described her as a “very hands-on mother.” Whereas their father set the tone for the family and his sons always tried to emulate him, it was their mother who “read the report cards and made sure we were toeing the line.”

She was no pushover, either. She was tough as a lay leader, always asking how her boards could do more for the people they served, and that carried over into her home life. Michael Rosenberg said he had a ‘55 Chevy in college that he was very proud of and that he paid more attention to than his grades. One day, he recalled, “she just went out and sold it, without talking to me. She was a take-charge person.”

He thinks fondly of her love for young people, both those she taught and those she met through her work with the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.

He recalled an essay she wrote for J. in 2009 about a prom one of the recipients threw for teens with cancer. She attended and wrote that she “could have danced all night.” That was meant specifically for the donors and board members, he said, “so they would get a better idea of what their money actually did.”

“She was an amazing person, what can I say,” Bakar said. “Definitely a force of nature.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].