Rabbi Michael Robinson
2005 Jack Green Civil Liberties Award Honoree
From marching for equality in Selma Alabama to speaking before the Sebastopol City Council for a living wage ordinance, Rabbi Robinson has dedicated his life to promoting justice and seeking peace and reconciliation in social conflicts. Known for his charismatic agitation, Rabbi Robinson is an award winning social justice champion committed to improving humanity. Since arriving in Sonoma County, Rabbi Robinson has advanced civil rights in our community through his tireless advocacy and his work on the Sonoma County Task Force on Homelessness, Children’s Village, the Living Wage Coalition, Habitat for Humanity, the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center, and the Sonoma Land Trust. Today, Michael Robinson continues his work for the homeless, a living wage, a free press, and for peace and justice.
Rabbi Robinson, originally from where the Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Smokies in North Carolina, received his B.A. from the University of Cincinnati. One quarter shy of receiving his B.S. in architectural engineering at North Carolina State College, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and served in the Pacific in World War II. He became a pacifist immediately after his discharge.
In June 1952, after completing the course of study at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Robinson became the first North Carolina native to be ordained as a rabbi. In 1977, he earned his doctoral degree from the New York Theological Seminary. He spent three years at Temple De Hirsch in Seattle, five years at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona 29 years at Temple Israel in Westchester, N.Y., followed by nine years at Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa.
Social activism was always part of Temple Israel. Its emphasis on social justice and activism flowered under Rabbi Robinson, under his leadership (1960-1989). During the civil rights movement, the synagogue raised money to help rebuild the black churches that had been burned in the South and financed the van used by the Freedom Riders to tour the South. Not a newcomer to the issue of racial equality, Rabbi Robinson stated: “When I was ten years old I began sitting on the back seat of the bus with ‘colored people.’ I never returned to the front seat.” Rabbi Robinson marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama and was jailed in St. Augustine Florida with 5 other rabbis who responded to King’s call for reinforcements.
During the Vietnam War, Temple Israel became nationally known for the draft counseling it offered to young men who wanted to apply for conscientious-objector status. It was one of the leading country’s leading centers with people coming from many different states, for counseling and advice.
In 1989 he and his wife Ruth arrived at Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, where both served (Ruth as musical director and cantorial soloist). He is credited with growing the congregation from 30 families in to the largest congregation in Santa Rosa. Retired since 1996, Rabbi Robinson holds the title of Rabbi Emeritus at both Temple Israel and Shomrei Torah.
Dedicating his life to promoting justice and seeking peace and reconciliation in social conflicts such as the American Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Nicaraguan Contra War, and the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Rabbi Robinson is an active leader in the Sonoma County peace and justice community. He has served on the Sonoma County Task Force on Homelessness as chair for five years, on the advisory board for Children’s Village and Habitat for Humanity, as a monitor for Sonoma Land Trust, as an outspoken advocate of the Living Wage Coalition, a dedicated member of the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center, and a Community Evaluator for Project Censored.
Rabbi Robinson has agitated locally for economic justice and racial equality on specific issues such as affirmative action, civilian review boards, free press, access to health care, marriage equality, and affordable housing. He has put his beliefs on the line by being arrested at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory protesting the development of nuclear arms, blocking the entrance to South African Embassy to the United Nations and the street leading to the Chinese embassy as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation protest against all nuclear powers. In 1992 he helped in the creation of the African-American Jewish Coalition for Justice in Seattle to “promote economic justice, combat hate crimes, and develop goodwill and mutual cooperation between the members of both communities in order to build a more equitable and just society.”
Soon after Rabbi Robinson moved to Sonoma County, he began leading self-esteem groups and mentoring homeless families at the Family Support Center. In 1994 after Santa Rosa outlawed homeless people from sleeping in their cars, he organized a “sleep-in” for homeless. It was a source of frustration that he couldn’t get arrested. “We protested against the ordinance against families sleeping in their cars with sleep-ins for three months in front of City Hall and the police station. We never could move City Hall.”
In 1996 he helped form Angry White Guys For Affirmative Action to bring a message of hope and understanding to their white brothers (and others) throughout our divided state. This group rejected the politics of resentment, and fought to defeat Proposition 209.
In 1996 he was one of the leaders and sponsor of Measure E, the initiative requiring a public vote on the transfer of Community Hospital ownership to Sutter/CHS. “I’m against the privatization of America and the world,” Rabbi Robinson said emphatically when asked why he helped “I think the people have a right to decide… This is not a county of dummies.”
In the wake of an inordinate number of civilians shot and killed by police, Rabbi Robinson attended and testified at hearings convened in Santa Rosa in 1998 by the US Human Rights Commission Advisory Committee. Rabbi Robinson testified that the polarization evidenced at the Advisory Committee’s fact finding meeting was an “absolute demonstration of the need for an independent civilian police review board to stand by and support the police, reassure the community that there is true oversight of the police, [enable everyone] to work together on policy, and to improve relationships between the police and the community.”
Robinson served for many years on the board of the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless. The Task Force helped launch a number of shelter, service, and prevention programs, advocated successfully for affordable housing and resources for assisting homeless people, educated our community, and provided small but crucial funding assistance to service programs through its Fund for the Homeless.
Rabbi Robinson served as coalition leader of Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County, which has campaigned since 1994 to pass living-wage laws. At the November 18, 2003 Sebastopol City Counsel meeting where the first Sonoma County ordinance was passed, he expressed the sentiments of the crowd: “It’s the right thing to do. It’s a push for economic justice and democracy. It is symbolic. For each of those affected, it is life changing.”
For a quarter of a century, Rabbi Robinson has 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 Mid-East crisis might be solved by re-examining Israel’s position in the territories and taking measures to dissipate the anger of the Palestinians and providing jobs and economic assistance to rebuild their lives.
An active supporter of same-sex marriage, he spoke before the Sebastopol City Council on March 16, 2004 when they passed Sonoma County’s first resolution by a governmental body supporting marriage equality. In response to those using the Bible to condemn homosexuality, he told the council: “I take the Bible seriously – too seriously to take it literally. Biblical literalism does not make sense. In Leviticus, it says ‘love thy neighbor.’ But it also says if you have a stubborn, rebellious child, stone him.”
Among his public awards, Rabbi Robinson has received recognition from the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Spirit of Community Award for his in educating the community and advocating for homeless services and affordable housing. He is soon to be honored by the Sonoma County Jewish Community Agency.
“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.”