Human-rights leader celebrates 50 years as a rabbi

Rabbi Michael Robinson would be taking his 50th anniversary as a spiritual leader in stride, if he weren't sporting a plaster cast on the leg he broke in a hiking accident last month.

The 77-year-old rabbi isn't striding much of anywhere until he recovers, though he and Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa marked his 50th rabbinical year with a special Shabbat service earlier this month. The celebration was led by the Reform congregation's full-time rabbi, George Gittleman, with cantorial help from Robinson's wife, Ruth.

Robinson gave a speech at the event and received a surprise visit from his lifelong colleague Rabbi Henry Cohen, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth David in Gladwyne, Pa. Cohen presented Robinson with a certificate of recognition from the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The packed synagogue included clergy and community leaders from throughout the North Bay.

Robinson, originally from where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Smokies in North Carolina, became a rabbi in June 1952 after completing the course of study at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

He spent three years at Temple De Hirsch in Seattle, five years at Temple Beth Shalom in Pomona and then 29 years at Temple Israel in northern Westchester, N.Y. For the past seven years, he has served Shomrei Torah, most recently in a part-time capacity.

Gittleman credits Robinson with growing the congregation from 30 to 100 families during those seven years. "He really put Shomrei Torah on the map," he said. "We're the largest congregation in Santa Rosa now."

Robinson holds the title of rabbi emeritus at both Temple Israel and Shomrei Torah — and is quietly proud of the designation. "I've struggled to keep my integrity and to do what I needed to do and be what I needed to be, in a difficult world," he said.

The past 50 years has been a roller-coaster ride for Robinson. A father and grandfather, he lost his 20-year-old son in a car accident some years ago. The rabbi continues to be an activist for civil rights, the homeless, a living wage, and peace and justice.

"I was part of the civil rights movement, and was jailed a number of times," Robinson said. "The last two times were at Livermore, along with others, protesting the development of nuclear arms" at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

For a quarter of a century, Robinson has also been on the board of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, one of the oldest interfaith peace organizations in the country. Through the group, he has visited the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the past, to gain perspective on their life experience.

"I'm not pro-Palestinian and I'm not pro-Israel — I'm pro-humanity," Robinson said, adding that he believes the current Mideast crisis might be solved by re-examining Israel's position in the territories.

"I was brought up in the South, where people thought blacks and whites would never be able to get along," Robinson said by way of analogy, "and I've seen that change."

Gittleman cited Robinson's unflagging belief in positive possibilities."He's known for many things — his charisma, his lifelong commitment to social justice — but what I know him best for is his heart. He's really all heart."

Robinson said that marking the anniversary of his induction into the rabbinate is an acknowledgment only, and not a signal that he plans to slow down.

"Last week I got a call from a young man I haven't seen since he was 10 years old. He's in his early 30s now. He just came back from doing relief work in Afghanistan. He said he went there because of what I taught about the Sh'ma, that we're one life-force. That was very touching for me, and when these things happen, I feel that maybe it was all worthwhile.

"Just being in the congregation, this is the place I want to be," Robinson added. "I'm just trying to live a Jewish life in this crazy world and work for justice. I plan to do more of the same, God willing."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."