July 9, 2008
The second time around, Dubin is still a mensch
Before a crowd of family and friends, the bar mitzvah approached the podium in the sanctuary of Adat Ari El and began his speech: "Today, I am a man." |
Peals of laughter rose from the pews of the Valley Village synagogue. Even the bar mitzvah himself cracked a smile -- at age 83, Rabbi Paul "Pinky" Dubin knew his declaration was a few decades belated.
The widely respected rabbi, interfaith advocate and mainstay on the boards of myriad Jewish organizations in the Los Angeles area celebrated his second bar mitzvah July 5, a cultural milestone traditionally marked by one's 83rd birthday.
While most people celebrate their only bar or bat mitzvah at age 13, a passage in the Book of Psalms has in recent times led to the notion that one's first need not be the last. According to King David, the average person's lifespan is 70 years, and those who live past that age are thought to start life anew. Thirteen years later, tradition says, the time is ripe for another bar mitzvah.
The whole idea is somewhat of a paradox to Dubin.
"There is no such thing as a second bar mitzvah," said Dubin, whose nickname, Pinky, comes from his Hebrew name, Pinchas. "Technically, you can only become a bar mitzvah once. When you turn 13 you become responsible for the commandments, which can't happen again. What you do with a second bar mitzvah is you read the same haftarah you read 70 years ago. It's a time to thank God for having lived to this age, and a time to reflect."
Dubin saw the event as a chance to take stock of his colorful life, entrenched in the L.A. Jewish community since childhood, and to pose the question: "How have I changed from a young man of 13 to the person I am at 83?"
For starters, his résumé is a bit bulkier.
Born in the once-thriving Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Dubin attended the historic Breed Street Shul (Talmud Torah Los Angeles), where his uncle, Sam Dubinsky, was the synagogue's shammash (caretaker). He was bar mitzvahed there in 1938 among relatives and friends from the yeshiva -- the city's first, later known as Los Angeles Jewish Academy -- founded by Breed Street Rabbi Osher Zilberstein.
After attending Roosevelt High School, Dubin went to UCLA, where he majored in physics and math and struggled with questions about his faith. A chance reading of "As a Driven Leaf" struck a nerve, and he found out that its author, Rabbi Milton Steinberg, was teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
"I'd never heard of it in my life," Dubin recalled. "In 1946, no one in the East knew we existed; no one knew there were Jews out here. Back then in Los Angeles, the whole city was like a shtetl."
Dubin graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1950 and moved back to Los Angeles, where he became rabbi at B'nai Israel, a small congregation in Baldwin Hills. After serving as chaplain in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he returned to the congregation.
"I loved it there. I would have stayed with them forever," Dubin said.
As more minority groups moved into the community, the changing cultural landscape was driving congregants away. Dubin joined the Crenshaw Ministerial Association, comprised mainly of Protestant ministers, hoping to promote unity in a quickly polarizing area.
"The neighborhood was integrating," he recalled. "I kept telling my congregation, 'Don't move. Let's have an integrated community -- let's be the first to do it.'"
Dubin's efforts were cut short by forces beyond his control -- the Baldwin Hills dam burst in 1963, destroying more than 100 homes, and the Watts Riots broke out two years later. His congregation of more than 15 years decided to merge with a neighboring synagogue. The rabbi's call for ethnic and religious tolerance, however, would be a recurring theme throughout the rest of his career.
In 1968, Dubin became the founding executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. While there, he helped found the Interreligious Council of Southern California, which gathered a diverse slate of religious leaders to tackle community concerns from an interfaith standpoint.
"I've always been fascinated to try to learn about every religion the best I can," Dubin said. "I haven't got patience to read all the books, so I learn by talking to people."
Dubin parlayed his quest for knowledge into a seven-year stint as director of education at Sinai Temple, and for three of those years he led groups of Jewish students from across the city to Israel with his late wife, Esther, for the Bureau of Jewish Education's Hebrew High Ulpan.
He returned to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California as executive vice president in 1979, and held that position until his retirement in 1998 -- although he has been anything but retired.
Still active in the community, Dubin now serves on the board of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council and chairs the Jewish Committee for Personal Service, a subsidiary of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center, which provides aid to Jewish prisoners. He has also served on the boards of Los Angeles Hebrew High School, the Bureau of Jewish Education, and the Anti-Defamation League.
A full list of his accomplishments could go on for hours, but after a while, Dubin bows his head and gives a modest wave.
"I do what I can," he said. "It keeps me young."
What Dubin lacks in ego, his two daughters make up for in pride.
"My dad is a legend," said Ruth Dubin Steinberg, 49, of Santa Barbara. "He has lived his life as an example to his friends and family. He deserves all the honor we can give him."
Her sister, Judy Dubin Aranoff -- who is associate cantor at Adat Ari El -- echoes the sentiment.
"I'm grateful that he is still vibrant and able to do a second bar mitzvah," said Dubin Aranoff, 54, of Van Nuys. "My dad is a people-person. I'm proud of the fact that so many people love and respect him. He genuinely cares about others and people relate to that. They see him as what he truly is: a great mensch."
Colleagues, family members and friends packed the synagogue to watch Dubin read from Parshat Chukat. As he followed the Torah around the sanctuary, many flocked to the aisles to shake his hand.
"Mazal Tov," one said.
"Here comes the bar mitzvah boy," joked another.
And on the bimah, a sight one doesn't see every day: Dubin Aranoff, who led the service, giving her father the traditional bar mitzvah blessing.
"I always get a blessing from my dad every Friday night on Shabbat," she said afterward. "Now I got to bless him."
After the service, Dubin was stopped every few steps on the way to the Kiddush by well-wishers -- classmates from the Jewish Theological Seminary, associates from the clergy and members of his first congregation in Baldwin Hills. He debated with several guests exactly how many decades it has been since he bar mitzvahed or married them.
Observations about Dubin among the crowd ranged from "a staunch defender of Conservative Judaism" to "such a sweet man."
One guest put his arm around Dubin and told him, "You're my favorite rabbi."
With his trademark humble wave, Dubin answered, "You must not know too many rabbis."
A couple of guests remembered Dubin from the Breed Street Shul, including Rabbi Harry Silverstein, son of the synagogue's longtime Rabbi Osher Zilberstein. The two friends grew up together in Boyle Heights and were schoolmates at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"Pinky is a brilliant scholar," said Silverstein, 81, who drove in from the Westside. "He is very learned. People see that he is honest and sincere -- he means what he says."
Dubin's family is now carrying on his formidable legacy at the bimah.
Dubin Aranoff began leading High Holy Days minyans at UCLA Hillel while in graduate school. When she became pregnant with her first daughter, Dubin Steinberg joined her in 1984. The two sisters led the service, under Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller's direction, for almost two decades.
"I learned a lot about being on the bimah from my father," said Dubin Steinberg, who is assistant director of education at Congregation B'nai B'rith in Santa Barbara and teaches Judaic studies at Camp Ramah in Ojai.
This fall, Dubin Aranoff's two daughters, Ronit, 23, and Yael, 20, will pick up where their mother and aunt left off leading High Holy Days services at UCLA.
"I'm very proud," Dubin Aranoff said. "They realize it's a lot of work, but they've been hearing it literally since birth."
Dubin Steinberg's older daughter, Gaby, 16, is currently studying in Israel. And her younger daughter, Talya, 11, is awaiting her own bat mitzvah -- although her ideas for the rite of passage might differ a bit from her grandfather's.
"No, I did not want a 'theme,'" Rabbi Dubin said with a grin. "I did not want a fancy party based on the Titanic."
During the service at the Valley Village synagogue, Dubin shared with the congregation one significant lesson he has learned during the past 70 years.
"In my young years I thought everything must have a neat answer -- one answer to every question," he said. "In the seminary I struggled with this. Then, when I graduated and started to work with people, I began to realize that not everything has a neat answer. There is a place for the unknown, and occasionally it is necessary to take a leap of faith."
After Adat Ari El's Rabbi Elianna Yolkut praised Dubin's strides in tikkun olam (healing the world), she noted that few in the Jewish community hadn't felt the effects of his work.
"Everyone who has been touched or influenced by Rabbi Dubin, please stand," she told the congregation.
Almost every person in the sanctuary rose.