Local | Obituaries

Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum, champion of social justice, dies

Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum
Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum

Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum, who retired in 2002 after 44 years in the rabbinate — more than 30 of them in Tucson — died July 1, 2013. He was 80.

Weizenbaum, who was senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El for 21 years beginning in 1972, and founded the now-defunct Congregation Ner Tamid with his wife, Eileen, in 1993, was known as an outspoken champion of social justice, particularly in the Sanctuary Movement that began in the early 1980s to support Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict.

“He was the first rabbi in the United States to be involved in the Sanctuary Movement,” says Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash, who was Weizenbaum’s assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El from 1989 to 1994. “He showed me what being a responsible rabbi was all about. His sense of righteousness … far outshines anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve lost really a wonderful mentor and a good friend.”

Weizenbaum was also a leader in helping refuseniks, the Russian Jews who were denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union, says Louchheim. “But it was in the Sanctuary Movement where he really led the day for rabbis and clergy all across the entire country ….  He and the local ministers here in Tucson really did a lot to literally save lives. So that was very inspirational.”

Rev. David Wilkinson of St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church was one of those ministers.

Weizenbaum “had a dramatic and lasting impact on both my life and my spiritual growth,” says Wilkinson, recalling that for 10 years Congregation Ner Tamid made its home at St. Francis in the Foothills.

“He was a wise teacher and a wise elder, not only in the Jewish tradition but in the tradition of all faiths. He had insight into what was foundation for all the world’s religions.

“He gave me the privilege on two occasions of conducting Shabbat, and I even did portions of it in Hebrew, which meant that he embraced a great deal of trust in me, a Christian, as someone who could minister to his congregation.”

The two collaborated on social action projects, including snack packs for needy elementary school children across the city and the founding of the International Center for Peace, a coalition of local Jews, Christians and Muslims, which they started about six months before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “We saw a crisis brewing that needed to be addressed through reconciliation. And Joe saw that.”

But they’d met years earlier, when the rabbi was in the pulpit at Temple Emanu-El.

In the Sanctuary Movement, “John Fife, the pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church took the lead,” explains Wilkinson, “but both Temple Emanu-El and St. Francis in the Foothills Methodist Church broke the law by housing, by providing sanctuary for what were then regarded as ‘illegal aliens.’ And Joe, like the Old Testament prophets and like Jesus of Nazareth, was willing to break the law in order to embrace a greater truth of justice. And Joe was a prophet of justice, he really was — his voice was sometimes intimidating for people but his voice also conveyed authority and power, which was to his advantage.”

The Sanctuary Movement was started “pretty much in self-defense,” recalls Fife, the former pastor of Southside Presbyterian, explaining that in the beginning he and his followers had been helping refugees cross the border secretly – or so they thought until they got a message from the immigration service to stop or be indicted. Their only choice was to go public and hope for support from the community, he says.

“I asked Rabbi Weizenbaum to participate in the interfaith service where we declared Sanctuary and received a family of four Salvadorans into the sanctuary of the church. And of course he was eloquent, as he always was, about his own family history, members of his family being undocumented,” he says.

Not only did the rabbi get his synagogue to be declaredf a Sanctuary – “he went through the process at Temple Emanu-El, whatever that was,” says Fife — he became the primary ambassador to the Jewish community, traveling the country urging other synagogues to join, reminding people of the failure of the Christian church to provide sanctuary for Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe.

An April 1986 article from JTA reports on Weizenbaum’s speech at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York.

“I am the son of an undocumented alien,” he said, telling how his father arrived in the United States from Europe in 1913 as a stowaway and was nearly deported. The rabbi continued, “The slaves who fled north in our country and the Jews who attempted to flee Nazi Germany found no refuge. We believe that communities of faith are now being called again to obey God by providing sanctuary to the refugees among us.”

Weizenbaum did more than just talk, notes Fife, recalling that when a number of local clergy were indicted, “Joe began to cross refugees. He would go to the border and help with the crossing and drive them back to Tucson,” at great personal risk, even getting caught once and having his car impounded.

Many of the rabbi’s friends and colleagues spoke of his power as an orator.

“Rabbi Weizenbaum drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish ancient wisdom in a fashion that was extraordinarily relevant and contemporary. Whether addressing the politics of the day or deeply personal matters of the heart, his brilliant sermons always challenged his congregants to live more fully and authentically,” says Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, adding that Weizenbaum was “not one to shy away from controversy. One of his many gifts was that you could always feel certain that he was being forthcoming with his views.  Truly, he was a powerful and unique leader.”

Weizenbaum, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, was ordained and earned a doctorate from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Before coming to Tucson, he served congregations in Ohio and Michigan. He also served as an Air Force and Veteran’s Administration chaplain.

The rabbi saw the sanctuary movement as the fourth in a series of social justice “chapters” in his life, which also included overseeing an advisory committee to the Dayton Board of Education and offering abortion counseling to young women in Dayton; traveling to Paris, Laos and Washington, D.C., in 1971 as the first rabbi to represent POW/MIA families  during the Vietnam War; and working with the Freedom of Thought Foundation, an organization that sought to “de-program” young Jews who were formerly members of cults and offered support to their families.

“I know there are people who have objected to certain things I’ve done,” he told the AJP in 2002, on the eve of his retirement, but he came to see each chapter as “my way of expressing my Jewishness.”

Rabbi Richard B. Safran, the Tucson community chaplain, recalls receiving a warm welcome from Weizenbaum and his wife when he and his wife moved to Tucson in 2001.

“I knew him as a good friend, a caring rabbi, a loving husband, and greatly concerned about the community and about people. He was a people person with strong roots in the labor unions in his family, and he knew what it was to be a stranger as in the Biblical passage, ‘You were strangers in the land of Egypt,’” says Safran. Understanding the responsibilities that implied for the Jewish people, Weizenbaum “believed that very strongly and lived by it and tried to preach it,” he says.

Weizenbaum is survived by his wife, Eileen; children, David Weizenbaum  of Minneapolis, Jon (Nancy) Weizenbaum of Austin, Texas, and Suzy Weizenbaum of Austin; stepdaughter Melissa (Karl) Hortien of North Carolina; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild; and former wife, Sharon Kahn.

A public memorial service will be held Sunday, July 7 at 2 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, following private interment in the Ner Tamid Section of Evergreen Cemetery. To offer condolences visit www.evergreenmortuary-cemetery.com. Memorial contributions may be made to the charity of your choice.