Rabbi Perry E. Nussbaum became a controversial proponent of civil equality in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s. Raised in Toronto, Ontario, Nussbaum was the son of working-class Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Nussbaum’s family attended a small orthodox synagogue, and he did not encounter Reform Judaism until shortly after his graduation from Toronto’s Central High School of Commerce. Unable to gain acceptance to the Chartered Accountants of Toronto (a rejection he attributed to being a Jew), Nussbaum began working as secretary to Rabbi Barnett R. Brickner of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. Brickner encouraged Nussbaum to apply to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Matriculating in the fall of 1926, Nussbaum earned his undergraduate diploma from the University of Cincinnati in 1931 and received his rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union in 1933. He seriously considered enrolling in a social service school after his ordination but instead decided to take a congregation.
During his student years, Nussbaum maintained a correspondence with Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, who had succeeded Brickner at Holy Blossom in Toronto. Isserman’s passionate concern for social justice issues impressed Nussbaum, and Isserman soon came to serve as a rabbinic role model.
Nussbaum’s direct and forceful personality played an important role in shaping his rabbinate. By his own admission, Nussbaum was “never a diplomat.” He had little capacity for catering to superiors, even those who might be in a position to further his career. He was the last member of his class to be offered a pulpit by Hebrew Union president Dr. Julian Morgenstern, who sent the neophyte rabbi as far from Cincinnati as possible: Melbourne, Australia. When the congregation dismissed Nussbaum six months later, Morgenstern urged Nussbaum to pursue another career altogether. Nevertheless, Nussbaum persevered. In the fall of 1934 he went to Amarillo, Texas, to officiate for the High Holy Days and managed to translate this temporary assignment into a permanent position.
Nussbaum’s difficult experience in Melbourne presaged two peripatetic decades in the American rabbinate. Between 1937 and 1954 Nussbaum served pulpits in Pueblo, Colorado; Wichita, Kansas; Trenton, New Jersey; Long Beach, New York; and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1954 a rabbinic colleague urged Nussbaum to apply for the open pulpit at Beth Israel in Jackson. Nussbaum landed the position and arrived in Jackson only a few months after the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools. The Court’s decision was a watershed event for the nation and for Nussbaum. As the new rabbi in the state’s capital, he promptly became the spokesman for Mississippi Jewry.
Nussbaum was embroiled in the struggle over civil rights throughout his nearly two decades in Jackson. His actions provoked criticism and even enmity from many quarters. On one hand, he distressed some members of his congregation when he publicly criticized Mississippi segregationists and urged Jackson’s Jews to accept the Supreme Court’s decision as the law of the land. Many of his congregants worried that their rabbi’s outspokenness would provoke a violent backlash that would endanger the synagogue and the larger Jewish community. Yet Nussbaum refused to be censored, and he continued publicly to condemn racism and injustice. At the same time, Nussbaum vigorously defended southern Jews to their northern coreligionists who the rabbi believed had little appreciation for the genuine dangers that existed during this turbulent era.
Nussbaum’s reputation as a man of courage grew when he volunteered to minister to civil rights activists imprisoned in Mississippi’s state penitentiary in the early 1960s. Although some of his congregants begged him to remain above the fray, Nussbaum refused to keep silent. He helped to integrate the city’s ministerial association, and to the chagrin of many in Jackson, the rabbi invited the integrated ministerial association to meet in the temple itself. Nussbaum repeatedly told his congregants that as Jews they were obligated to promote justice and defend liberty.
On 18 September 1967 a bomb destroyed a significant portion of Temple Beth Israel’s new synagogue building. On 22 November, the rabbi’s home was bombed. Nussbaum and his wife escaped without physical injury, but these experiences left the rabbi traumatized and embittered. A leading Southern Baptist minister who came to Nussbaum’s home to express sympathy regarding the bombing was told to spare his regrets. “If you really want to show your sympathies,” Nussbaum lectured the minister, “then tear up whatever you’re preparing for your sermon next Sunday morning and speak to the people in the front pews about their culpability in everything that’s happened not just to me . . . but to the blacks and their churches over the years.”
A few days later, Nussbaum resigned from Jackson’s Rotary Club, where he had been active for nearly fourteen years. Despite appeals from the community, the rabbi refused to reconsider his decision. Years later, Nussbaum expressed regret over these displays of pique. Justified or not, his hotheaded conduct in the aftermath of the bombings diminished his standing in the Jewish community and among Jackson’s social elite. Jackson’s Jewish leaders expected their rabbi to function as a goodwill ambassador to the community at large, not as a harsh social critic. Though he was nearing retirement, the thought of remaining in Jackson’s charged environment seemed increasingly intolerable to Nussbaum. He applied for other positions but found no takers for a sixty-year-old rabbi. With no other viable options, Nussbaum completed his contract, remaining in Jackson until 1973, when he and his wife, Arene Talpis Nussbaum, retired to San Diego.
Nussbaum died on 30 March 1987. During his lifetime, he received little recognition for his civil rights activities. However, his intrepid refusal to keep silent and his determination to follow his moral conscience in the face of life-threatening violence mark him as a noteworthy religious leader in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s.
- Richard J. Birnholz, Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook (1987)
- Edward Cohen, The Peddler’s Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi (2002)
- Allen Krause, “The Southern Rabbi and Civil Rights” (Rabbinic thesis, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, 1967)
- Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997)
- Murray Polner, Rabbi: The American Experience (1977)
- Gary Phillip Zola, in The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s, ed. Mark K. Bauman and Berkley Kalin (1997)