Rabbi Michael Was Larger Than Life

These remarks were originally delivered at a conference of Reform Rabbis (PAR) in Palm Springs, the year of his death in 2006.

Michael Robinson was bigger than life in many ways. He was a tall man, well over 6 feet. I’m 5’ 10” and when we hugged, my head rested on his chest. He was a good looking man in an angular, proud, southern sort of way. He had sharp features, a roman nose, big, bushy eyebrows and piercing blue eyes. He looked a bit like Abe Lincoln without the beard and top hat. He certainly had the moral stature of Abe, at least in my eyes. Raised in the hill country of North Carolina, Michael spoke with a southern accent. He said “y’all” and “bar’khu” in the same way. When Michael spoke, people listened. He was a presence in any room. We didn’t always agree, and Michael could define the word “difficult”, but I loved him. I should say, we learned to love each other, I mean really love each other.

Michael and Ruth “retired” to Sonoma County in 1989 to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren. I doubt he’d been in Santa Rosa for more than a month when he was contacted by a struggling Reform congregation to see if he might lend a hand. There was a couple that he had served as the rabbi at Croton on Hudson who were a part of Congregation Shomrei Torah and they made the shiduk. He was engaged as their “part time” rabbi. There were maybe 50 members. They rented space from a Methodist church. Well, as it turned out, the congregation got a “twofor”; Michael was the rabbi and Ruth became both rebbetzin and cantorial soloist. Michael used to joke that Ruth was the only cantor he ever slept with. Probably not “pc” and not typically Michael, except in as much as it expressed the love he had for Ruth and his sense of humor; he was deadly serious but he knew how to laugh. In Michael’s “retirement” he grew the congregation from about 50 families to 150 families.

Michael also continued his life long work in the areas of Peace and Justice, Reconciliation, and Social Action. When the city of Santa Rosa passed an ordinance making it illegal to sleep in your car, Michael parked his Toyota Camry across the street from the police station and went to sleep. How he fit in that car, I still don’t know. But he made his point. Michael was well known in the whole county as an outspoken advocate for the homeless. He was a regular speaker at City Council meetings; I can still see him standing at the podium, a bit of a swagger at the hip, his hand stretched out, his index finger pointing in a fatherly but accusing way. When Michael got going he was something to watch. There was a bit of a southern preacher in him and he was not afraid of controversy, in fact, he seemed to thrive on it. Michael knew how to speak to power in the prophetic style of the great rabbis of his generation. He was one of those rabbis. And, he could take the heat, even when it came to speaking out about Israel.  Michael made me look like a conservative. I used to joke with him that he never met a cause he didn’t like. That was pretty much the truth, but Michael was not a bumper sticker activist; he walked the talk like no other man I’ve known in my life.

I arrived in Santa Rosa in 1996. Michael had built the congregation up to the point that they needed a full time rabbi; Michael always said he was only paid part time…In any event, I went from HUC to Santa Rosa, and Michael was my emeritus. As you can imagine, we, that is Michael and I, had a rocky start. I’ll spare with you the details; suffice to say that at first, it was hard for Michael to let go of the reins. In fact, I’d say Michael never sat on the sidelines well. Michael would sit in the same place every Friday night and grumble through the whole service. At first I took it personally, but then I realized that Michael grumbled through any service he wasn’t leading! There were occasions when I would have to have stern words with him. One of the things I so loved about Michael was that he was, as he put it, “a work in progress.” He was a rare man that even into his late 70’s could take a rebuke from a colleague half his age, actually listen, feel contrite, and at least try not to offend again. Michael and I had a real relationship where we could say what we meant, felt, and needed to say to each other. Being an emeritus and having one can be challenging. What made our relationship work was mutual respect and love. When I needed him, he was there for me. He helped me through the death of both my stepfather and brother. If I had a particularly hard board meeting, or was struggling with a challenging congregant, I called Michael. We were in a men’s clergy group for years. Can you imagine being in a men’s group with your emeritus?  We had lunch most every week.  In truth, he was as much a “father” as a “colleague.

Y’all know the passage in Pirke Avot where The Rabbis argue about what makes for a good life.  Rabbi Eliezer said it was an ayin tov. Rabi Joshua argued that it was being a haver tov and so on. Finally, Rabbi Eliezar wins the day by saying that the most important quality was a lev tov since it leads to all the other attributes that were mentioned. (P.A. 2:13).

Looking back over the small fraction of Michael’s life that I had the honor of sharing with him, it was Michael’s heart that was so remarkable. This heart of his was the wellspring of his strength, a profound testimony to his faith, the essence of his religion.

The path Michael walked was not an easy one. He had more then his own share of personal tzurous as well, including the loss of a son, a son-in-law and many, many close friends along the way. But somehow, his heart remained open; he could get depressed but never bitter. He was a man who believed in the promise of the future, and lived his life accordingly. He believed in people. He loved Martin Buber and really did see the other as a Thou, a being no more or less worthy than himself, animated with the Divine. He rarely, if ever, gave up on anyone, even those who attacked him.  It broke his heart to see the world so broken, and he tirelessly gave of himself to do what he could to put the broken pieces back together.

Over 500 people came to Michael’s funeral. One would have thought he had lived his whole life in Santa Rosa. Seeing what an impact he had in his “retirement” one can only imagine the full weight of his 50+ years in the rabbinate.

I still look for him in the congregation. Believe it or not, I miss his grumbling presence sitting in the back toward the right.  I miss his counsel and his presence. I miss hugging him after services. I miss his prophetic voice in my life, the life of the congregation and the life of our community. Most of all I miss his wide open heart which embraced so much of life and so many people along the way.

I know it is not common for us “Reform” rabbis to speak about Olam Habah. All I can say is that, assuming Michael is “up there” somewhere, well… I feel for God. You see, I can see Michael standing there, wagging his finger, giving The Almighty “what for” about the state of affairs down here… Eternity is a long time…

I feel for God, I really do.

We love you Michael. We always will…

Zikhrono L’brakha