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Perry Nussbaum

NUSSBAUM, PERRY (1908–1987), U.S. rabbi and activist. In the midst of a somewhat lackluster career, Rabbi Perry Nussbaum found himself thrust into the national spotlight during the Civil Rights era. Nussbaum was raised as an Orthodox Jew in Toronto. He later joined the Reform movement, and was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1933. Throughout the first 20 years of his career, Nussbaum bounced around between small congregations across the country, at least partly due to his outspoken and sometimes difficult personality.

Nussbaum took the pulpit at Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, not long after the Supreme Court's landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education which mandated school integration. From his arrival, Rabbi Nussbaum was caught up in the civil rights issue. Though he was morally appalled by Mississippi's system of racial discrimination, he faced a congregation that largely did not want to challenge the status quo and wished their rabbi to remain quiet on the issue. At first, Nussbaum avoided getting involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement, though he did occasionally sermonize on the issue.

In the summer of 1961, waves of freedom riders arrived in Jackson protesting segregation in interstate bus travel. These activists, many of whom were Jewish, were arrested and sent to Parchman State Prison. Nussbaum tried to organize the state's rabbis to visit these Jewish protestors regularly, but none of his colleagues would agree to do it. Nussbaum shouldered this burden himself, driving 150 miles each way once a week to visit them, deliver personal supplies and cigarettes, and lead a short worship service. Perhaps most importantly, he took down the names and addresses of the activists' families, and wrote them letters assuring them that their sons and daughters were okay. Although Nussbaum received attention and support from Jews around the country for his work, the rabbi did not publicize his visits to his congregation. He paid his own expenses for these trips.

As the backlash against civil rights became more violent in Mississippi, Nussbaum became more outspoken. In 1964, he helped found the Committee of Concern, an interracial group of ministers that sought to raise money to rebuild bombed or burned churches. At the dedication of Beth Israel's new temple in 1967, both black and white ministers participated. On September 18, 1967, Nussbaum's own house of worship was bombed by local Ku Klux Klan members. Two months later, the same group bombed Nussbaum's home. Though the rabbi was home with his wife at the time, no one was seriously hurt.

Shaken by these attacks, Nussbaum initially tried to leave Jackson, but ended up staying at Beth Israel until his retirement in 1973. Nussbaum's career in Jackson reflected the tremendous pressures that southern rabbis felt in balancing their religious and moral ideals with societal demands to conform to white supremacy. Though they were not as outspoken as their northern colleagues who did not face the same threat of violence, Nussbaum and many of his fellow rabbis in the South helped lay the difficult groundwork for constructing a new South based on racial equality.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.