Santa Rosa teacher was known for his scholarly work on Jesus
Sanford Lowe, a politically active gay rabbi who taught religion at Santa Rosa Junior College and was widely known for his studies of Jesus, died Monday in Santa Rosa of a heart attack.
Rabbi Lowe, who died at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, was 69.
Eric Thompson, his successor as instructor of religious studies at the college, said that in addition to cardiac difficulties, Rabbi Lowe also had severe kidney problems and was awaiting a kidney transplant at the time of his death.
Born in New York City in 1935, Rabbi Lowe, who was known as Sandy, grew up as a Jew who became intensely curious about the life of Jesus.
“Sandy was fascinated by Jesus and in his early academic career he sought to overcome the terror of Christianity he was made to feel growing up Jewish,” Thompson said. He said most Jews growing up with Rabbi Lowe were taught to see “Christianity as their persecutor.”
“When Sandy was a child,” Thompson said, “he used to hide a Christian Bible in his clothes and read it. He was embarrassed that his family might find out he was reading about Jesus. That was culturally taboo.”
Rabbi Lowe graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1954 and went on to collect a number of degrees — a bachelor’s of science from Cornell University, then a bachelor’s in Hebrew literature and a master’s in Hebrew literature and rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and a doctor of ministry from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.
In the 1960s, Rabbi Lowe was rabbi of a synagogue in Valley Stream, N.Y., where he counseled potential Vietnam War draftees. In 1970, eager for a new life, he left his congregation, loaded up his Volkswagen camper and decided to move to Northern California, where several of his friends from high school years at Brooklyn Tech had taken up residence.
In 1971, he joined Santa Rosa Junior College as an instructor and also became active in the nascent gay movements of the time. He became a leader in the “SCRAP 6” campaign to defeat 1978’s Proposition 6, a controversial ballot measure calling for the dismissal of gay teachers and staffers in California schools. The initiative, authored by conservative state Sen. John Briggs, was roundly defeated in the November 1978 general election. Despite that victory, however, it wasn’t easy being a gay Jew in rural Northern California back then.
“In those days, (Rabbi Lowe) was a Jew teaching the Bible in an atmosphere that was not exactly Berkeley,” said Art Hofmann, a retired Santa Rosa Junior College instructor in German and a close friend. “This was an extremely conservative community and a Jew teaching the Bible, and then coming out. I think that took great moral courage.”
Rabbi Lowe was also widely known as something of a mentor for people who were having difficulty thinking out their sexuality. His longtime friend, Mark Freeman, said that Rabbi Lowe counseled many friends who were “in marriages and were afraid to come out (sexually). They found him; he was the only openly gay person they knew.”
Underlying all this, however, was his deep curiosity about the life of Jesus, and “this interest developed into a lifelong study of historical Jesus, ” Thompson said.
Rabbi Lowe was a member of the Jesus Seminar, a worldwide group of scholars who study early Christianity and ultimately make historical judgments based on what they discover.
The key to Rabbi Lowe’s own historical forays was the Bible, and on his Web site at Santa Rosa Junior College he lamented what he felt was vast ignorance about that text.
“There is … an astonishingly widespread lack of knowledge about the basic structure of the Bible either as literature or history,” Rabbi Lowe wrote, “and almost no exposure to the intricate systems of biblical interpretation and commentary, traditional and modern, which have enriched and defined the culture of the Western world.”
Hearing of Rabbi Lowe’s death, Donna Reed, 75, of Santa Rosa, sent an e- mail to Hofmann, recalling the time more than 30 years ago when she was one of the rabbi’s students.
“He really turned my head around, and I learned so much from him,” Reed wrote. “I remember him describing the city of Jerusalem and all the political factions therein during Jesus’ times. The city came alive, and I could just see and hear it bustle. I have never forgotten him, and he remains my most favorite teacher. He cut across all religions — we had Jehovah Witnesses, Catholic sisters, Protestants and renegades like me with a Christian Science background in my two classes. Everyone went home happy.”
Rabbi Lowe retired from teaching in 2001.
He is survived by his partner, Simon Bockie of Berkeley, and cousins Sharon Nathanson of Juno Beach, Fla., and Stephen Hiller of Tuckahoe, N.Y.
Memorial services in Santa Rosa and San Francisco are being planned. His colleagues and friends suggest donations to the Sanford Lowe Humanities Scholarship Fund, Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95401-4395.