Rabbi Michael Robinson, firebrand for justice and equality, dies at 81

“Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build — I’ll be there, too.”

When Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad speaks about, in essence, becoming an ethereal force for good in the closing moments of the movie “The Grapes of Wrath,” generations of well-meaning filmgoers have thought about what a great job that would be.

Rabbi Michael Robinson didn’t think about it. He did it.

The crusading, liberal rabbi emeritus at Santa Rosa’s Congregation Shomrei Torah marched against racial injustice and was jailed along with Martin Luther King Jr., protested nuclear proliferation and took action in support of the homeless, the unemployed and the powerless in his own backyard and around the world.

Following a two-year battle with cancer, Robinson died July 20 in his Sebastopol home. He was 81.

“Michael was a paradigm of the prophetic voice in the rabbinate. He spoke the truth no matter what the consequences were,” said Robinson’s close friend and successor at Shomrei Torah, Rabbi George Gittleman.

“And he walked the talk. He didn’t just speak about homelessness, he worked with the homeless population. He didn’t just talk about Latin America, he went to El Salvador. He didn’t just talk about the challenges Palestinians face in Israel, he went in and volunteered in the West Bank and Gaza.”

Robinson was, in his own words, “born as a privileged white male in the segregated South,” the son of a politically progressive optometrist in Asheville, N.C. At 10 years old, he began sitting in the back of the bus along with his black nanny as a youthful statement against discrimination. “I never returned to the front seat,” he would later write.

He graduated from Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College in 1952 and embarked on his rabbinical career along with his wife, Ruth, a fellow civil rights activist who often served as his cantorial soloist. Robinson never strayed far from his activist roots, and led a delegation of rabbis to St. Augustine, Fla., to march in favor of civil rights at King’s behest. The entire troupe was jailed — Robinson’s first, but not last, stint behind bars, according to his wife.

“My daughter Jude told me the other day that our idea of a family outing was to go on a protest march,” recalled Ruth Robinson, who was married to the rabbi for 53 years.

“And we did do that, we took the kids on many marches. [Jude] was on the platform with him on U.N. Plaza in New York City when Martin Luther King was speaking. And Joan Baez was up there, too.”

After nearly 30 years as a pulpit rabbi in upstate New York, the Robinsons “retired” to Santa Rosa to be closer to Jude, who lives in Mill Valley. Robinson became the part-time rabbi at Shomrei Torah in 1989, which then was barely more than a minyan and featured about 30 member families. Nobody had ever met anyone like him.

“I was intrigued. First of all, I had never heard Hebrew with a North Carolina accent,” recalls longtime friend Ben Benson.

“He was so earnest and intense about Torah and our responsibilities as human beings. And Ruth was doing cantorial work and she provided this counterpoint, she brought peacefulness. At the time, my relationship to Judaism was kind of in flux. But I found what I was looking for in him. He was so incredibly relevant.”

Robinson quickly decided to pick a two-front fight with the Santa Rosa City Council and Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, whom he felt were underserving the community’s needy populations.

Benson, by then a board member, said Shomrei Torah’s leadership was not ready to join all of its rabbi’s fights.

“We didn’t have his experience. We hadn’t been jailed with Martin Luther King and all that, and in a lot of ways, we failed him. If I could do it again, I would, and I would do whatever his leadership directed. Because he was right,” Benson recalled.

“He had a moral clarity — and governmental agencies need to be challenged. Michael Robinson’s soul ran deep, and there were things in there to be discovered when you got to know him. And you knew that, even when you disagreed with him profoundly, there was a gentle soul in there.”

Gittleman concurred, noting that he’d seen Robinson argue with many people, but never once witnessed him “demonizing anybody. He really respected human beings, regardless of their political perspective. Someone could attack him for his position and he would not think poorly about that person. He stuck to the issues.”

And as controversial as Robinson could be, Shomrei Torah quintupled its membership to around 150 families in the seven years he was senior rabbi, and currently boasts 380 member families.

Even though he’s only about half Robinson’s age, Gittleman noted that, until Robinson became sick with cancer about two years ago, he seemed to have even more energy than his youthful friend and protégée.

That energy (Gittleman described Robinson as “on fire” for social justice and Judaism) and Robinson’s moral clarity made him an intimidating figure for some people. But not Gittleman.

“What people missed was that he had the biggest heart of anyone. Even at 81, he thought of himself as a work in progress. He never gave up on anybody and he never gave up on himself. A lot of people, as they mature, they say ‘this is who I am.’ But Michael was never satisfied with who he was, or, for that matter, who the world was,” said Gittleman.

“I’m going to miss being able to talk to him about what was important in our lives. I’m going to miss his presence every Friday night. He sat in the same place and I’ll miss seeing him every Shabbos. There’s a void in the congregation and the community and I’m not sure how we’re going to fill it.”

Rabbi Michael Robinson is survived by his wife, Ruth, of Sebastopol; sister Leah Karpen of Asheville, N.C.; daughters Jude of Mill Valley and Sharon of Ft. Townsend, Wash., and three grandchildren. A son, Joel, died at age 25 in 1981 in an auto accident. Donations may be made to the Rabbi Michael Robinson Memorial Fund, Congregation Shomrei Torah, 1717 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95404.

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.