Arts and Culture | Local

Activist rabbi was controversial, inspirational

Abigail Gumbiner
Abigail Gumbiner

Abigail Gumbiner defies the adage “you can’t go home again.” On Sept. 14 she will speak at the Jewish History Museum of

Rabbi Joseph H. Gumbiner at Yale University in 1950
Rabbi Joseph H. Gumbiner at Yale University in 1950

Tucson about photos she and two other artists have contributed to the current exhibit “Temple of Shadows.” The exhibit title refers to the building that many in Tucson know as the Stone Avenue Temple, which housed Gumbiner’s first synagogue home, Temple Emanu-El. Her father, Joseph H. Gum­biner, was Temple Emanu-El’s rabbi from 1942 until 1947.

“My father was inspired and had a personal relationship with God, very early in his life,” explains Abigail. “It was at his confirmation as a teen that he decided to become a rabbi. He was dedicated to tikkun olam (the repair of the world) all his life.”

After his ordination at Hebrew Union College in 1931 at the age of 25, Gumbiner’s first clerical posting was in Selma, Ala. “My father loved the Deep South, but he was disturbed by the racial injustice he witnessed there,” says Abigail.  The “Scottsboro Boys” trial (which brought nine black teens to “justice” for allegedly raping two white girls) was drawing national attention to the issue of civil rights abuses just as Gumbiner began his rabbinical career.

Gumbiner called for social justice from his pulpit, causing many Jews in Selma to balk at his outspokenness. Despite pushback from congregational leadership, Gum­biner continued to decry the injustices he saw, such as New Deal money earmarked for combatting tuberculosis only going to whites.

Gumbiner left the south and the clergy behind when he met Sylvia Tierstein, a social worker, who agreed to marry him only if he left the rabbinate. The couple settled in Reno, Nev., where they became shopkeepers. But once the Jews of Reno discovered that he was an ordained rabbi, they prevailed repeatedly on him for guidance. His wife eventually relented and Gumbiner resumed the rabbinate, founding the first Reform synagogue in Nevada. Abigail was born in Reno in 1940.

In 1942, her parents moved the family to Tucson, where Gumbiner had been offered the post of rabbi to the 28 families at Temple Emanu-El. “My father and mother loved Tucson and would have stayed; his years here were fabulous but rocky,” Abigail says.

Gumbiner continued to speak out for civil rights during his years in racially segregated Tucson while World War II raged overseas. He was appalled that black soldiers from nearby Fort Huachuca were denied access to USO facilities in Tucson. He worked to promote ties with the Prince Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church that was next door to Temple Emanu-El. He was a founder of the Tucson Inter-Racial Council that formed after the Arizona Daily Star newspaper published a front-page anti-Zionist editorial. When knowledge of the Holocaust emerged, he helped form the Tucson Zionist District along with Rabbi Marcus Breger of Congregation Anshei Israel, with whom he solicited donations from Jews and non-Jews alike to help relocate survivors in the Holy Land.

Gumbiner was instrumental in establishing an official Hillel on the University of Arizona campus and he also arranged the gifting of the land that would become the home of the UA Hillel Foundation. He taught classes at the UA while earning a master’s degree in philosophy.

Under Gumbiner’s leadership in the 1940s, Temple Emanu-El grew from 28 to 200 families. Despite this success, his history of standing up for his beliefs eventually lost him his pulpit. Abigail says that he “ruffled the feathers of many of the white people of Tucson, particularly the older members of his congregation who thought his activism would reflect badly on the Jews in Tucson.” While Temple leadership was raising money to create a larger congregational home that eventually would be built on Country Club Road, contentious negotiations ensued for his contract renewal in 1947. Though the congregation’s board voted for a three-year contract extension, Gumbiner knew that many of the larger donors would retract their pledges for the new building if he remained. To avoid causing a possible split in the congregation, he resigned his post.

Gumbiner eventually settled on the West Coast and founded Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood, Calif. He was director of the Hillel Foundation at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s and ’70s. In the Bay Area he joined a contingent of Reform rabbis who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.

“When he left San Francisco, my mother and I were actually shaking as he got on the bus; we were scared to death,” says Abigail. “He was a small man who had never had to defend himself physically.” But Gumbiner, then 59, was undaunted and returned to the South where he was arrested twice; once for eating lunch with blacks at a segregated coffee shop in Jackson, Miss., and a second time for leading a demonstration in Montgomery in front of the mayor’s home.

Gumbiner remained in California for the rest of his life. He retired at age 86 from the UC Berkeley Hillel Foundation and died in 1993.

Abigail, an only child, says her early family life was so infused with social activism that she believed all rabbis were like her father. Her upbringing inspired dual professions. She has been a Jewish educator for over 30 years, having received a master’s degree in Jewish community service from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. And she’s been an artist all her life, working in photography and sculpture and in recent years combining the two art forms (see www.abigail “As I was growing up, my parents always supported my artistic endeavors. They dragged me to museums all the time. As they adored folk art, particularly from the Southwest and Mexico, our house was always dripping with artwork and decorated in a most unconventional way.”

At the Jewish History Museum event, which will be held Sept. 14 from 2-4 p.m., Abigail will speak about both the “Temple of Shadows” show and an ancillary exhibit dedicated to her father.

Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.