Morton Rubin, Northeastern scholar of race relations; at 88

By Arthur Hirsch
Globe Correspondent / August 24, 2011

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When Dr. Morton Rubin retired as a professor in Northeastern University’s department of sociology and anthropology in 1985, his colleagues surprised him by showing up at his door in Newton in a red London-style double-decker bus. So the tour began, tracing Dr. Rubin’s life in the Boston neighborhoods that he made part of his studies of racial and ethnic struggle.

The nun who ran the university’s Spiritual Life Center tended bar on the upper deck, one colleague recalled, as the bus rolled through Newton, Roxbury, Dorchester, and other neighborhoods.

Some 50 people had climbed aboard the bus that spring day to celebrate Dr. Rubin and his 28 years at the school, where he gained a reputation as a respected scholar and a level-headed, generous colleague inclined to help new faculty members step gingerly through the thorns of academic politics. He found ways to smooth the edges of disputes in the department, and as a scholar, he considered how disparate people managed conflict.

Dr. Rubin died at home in Brookline on July 28 after a long illness. He was 88.

An Army veteran who served as a clerk and French translator in Europe during World War II, Dr. Rubin was born in Roxbury and graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School. He completed his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Boston University in 1946, earning credits for the studies he’d done in correspondence courses during his time in the service.

Dr. Rubin’s experience in Europe set the stage for much of the work he would pursue in his academic career.

He studied the French Basque community during his military service, and that became the basis for his master’s thesis at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He continued with doctoral studies at UNC by immersing himself in a black community in Wilcox County, Ala., producing a study of segregation. He earned his PhD in the spring of 1950 and a year later published his dissertation as a book: “Plantation County.’’

Dr. Rubin’s experience meeting Jewish refugees of the Holocaust sparked his interest in the Zionist ideal of a Jewish homeland. After finishing his doctorate, he went to Israel in 1951 and worked there briefly as a social worker.

He and his wife, Mary Elizabeth (Schlom), returned to Israel on their honeymoon in 1954, then later with his two sons in the mid-1960s, then again to see how the country had changed after the Six-Day War in 1967. In 1974, he published his second book, “The Walls of Acre,’’ a study of Arabs and Jews in one northern Israeli town near the Mediterranean coast.

Growing up in Boston helped shape Dr. Rubin’s interest in group identities and how religious and ethnic groups “kept their identity and became part of the larger society,’’ said his son Joel of Arlington.

Joel Rubin remembered his father taking him to black churches on Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury in the early 1960s, where they would join with the congregations in singing “We Shall Overcome.’’

“He was a very dedicated urban sociologist,’’ said Wilfred Holton, an emeritus sociology professor at Northeastern. “He was very dedicated to trying to improve race relations and the quality of life in the city.’’

In the mid-1970s, as the busing crisis erupted, Dr. Rubin and Holton established a course on the sociology of Boston, looking at the city’s history and developments in race, poverty, and education.

“It was a very popular course,’’ said Holton, who started teaching at Northeastern in 1973 on a six-month contract, filling in during Dr. Rubin’s sabbatical. They met when Dr. Rubin returned.

Debra Renee Kaufman, a sociology professor, arrived at Northeastern in 1976, when Dr. Rubin had been teaching there for 18 years. She found in Dr. Rubin a “wonderful combination of a paternal air, but also a good sense of strong women. He was fatherly, but also supportive in a collegial, egalitarian way.’’

She recalled his advice for earning tenure and promotions, and his support when she established the women’s studies program in 1981. He backed her, but also counseled caution, urging her to fashion courses to appeal to the most students and not to seem too narrowly focused. Instead of calling a course “Women, work and business,’’ he would suggest calling it, “Men, women and social values in the world of business,’’ Kaufman said.

“He was concerned I’d be seen as political,’’ Kaufman said. “He was very politically astute.’’

Dr. Rubin had always taken an interest in Jewish culture, including activities of the campus organization Hillel. In the 1960s, he became a founding member of Temple Beth Avodah, a Reform synagogue in Newton Centre.

As he aged, he spent more time studying Jewish theology. At 80, he became the oldest member of the Saturday morning Torah study group at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, said Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, one of two rabbis at the synagogue.

“He remained intellectually curious,’’ said Waldoks. “He always had a good question to ask.’’

Waldoks said Dr. Rubin had not shown up for the study group for about eight weeks as he became more ill. Since he died, Waldoks said, “his chair has been covered with a prayer shawl and no one will sit on it for 30 days.’’

Dr. Rubin was buried in a private ceremony at Staro Konstantinov Cemetery in West Roxbury. Temple Beth Zion plans to conduct a memorial service after Labor Day, Waldoks said.

In addition to his wife and son Joel, Dr. Rubin leaves his son David of New Jersey and five grandchildren.

Globe correspondent Arthur Hirsch can be reached at