July 9, 2008
The second time around, Dubin is still a mensch
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."