William “Bill” Nusbaum: Tikkun Olam in Hampton Roads

July 12, 2012

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Bill Nusbaum

Bill Nusbaum

Bill Nusbaum, 56, has a painting in his home of the village of Positano which he bought at an art auction at Ohef Sholom Temple in 2008. The landscape of the picturesque village nestled into a cove, precariously perched on the mountainside of Italy’s Amalfi Coastline, represents a convergence of lifetime experiences.

After graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1980, Nusbaum backpacked through Europe. When his tour bus passed briefly through Positano, he promised himself he would return. Twentyseven years later, he did with his family.

Magnificent scenery continues to fuel Nusbaum’s sense of spirituality. He treasures his visits to Denver where his mother, Louise, of blessed memory, was raised. Viewing “her mountains,” he says, from the Genesee Park overlook remains a “pilgrimage” for him, his wife Sharon and daughter Leigh.

His father’s family traces its Norfolk roots back to before the Civil War. In 1844, two of his ancestors, Aaron Goldsmith and Lewis Nusbaum, were founding members of Ohef Sholom, and since then, six Nusbaum men have been presidents of the congregation.

In the 1970’s, Rabbi Lawrence Forman began encouraging families to embrace the ritual of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Nusbaum recalls, “When I was confirmed in 1971, only one of my classmates had a Bar Mitzvah.” In 2002, he celebrated his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah on Simchat Torah. The ceremony fell on his grandmother, Justine Nusbaum’s, birth date, just two years after she passed away at the age of 99½. A great influence in his life, Nusbaum describes her as a “one woman social service department” for the work she did for Jewish refugees after the Holocaust and later for Soviet Jewry. Nusbaum celebrated his own adult Bar Mitzvah, three years later, reading the same parsha after being tutored by Leigh.

When the Reform movement relaxed its rules on interfaith marriage in the early 1980s, Rabbi Forman followed suit at Ohef Sholom. On August 28, 1983, Nusbaum married Sharon in the congregation’s first public interfaith wedding ceremony in the main sanctuary.

Having agreed beforehand to raise Jewish children, Sharon looked for opportunities to understand Judaism. While Leigh attended the Newport Avenue JCC preschool, Sharon worked in the school library, becoming one of the first to be recognized as “Volunteer of the Month.” As Leigh studied at Ohef Sholom’s Religious and Hebrew schools, Sharon’s involvement in synagogue life steadily increased. Her journey lead her to participate in the JCC’s Florence Melton Mini School program.

In 2010, after her mother’s death and just one month after she was elected copresident of Ohef Sholom’s Sisterhood, Sharon converted to Judaism. Nusbaum maintains, “The entire process, including the mikvah visit, was heartwarming and embracing.”

His involvement with the synagogue began in 1985 as a board member. For many years, Nusbaum represented Ohef Sholom on the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Community Relations Council. Then, mindful of his own interfaith marriage, he joined the Council’s Interfaith Commission. Through his association, he met Cindy Creede, the founding executive director of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia.

Impressed with the organization’s extraordinary efficiency, in 1990, Nusbaum agreed to join its board of directors. Soon after, he and fellow Foodbank board member Peter Huber organized the local “Legal Food Frenzy,” an idea originated in Seattle, Wash. Their fundraising endeavor has grown into a statewide phenomenon, sponsored annually by the Attorney General. Raising more than 1.6 million meals this past year, the campaign has also expanded to eight other states’ bar associations. Governor Bob McDonnell has just launched a similar endeavor in the business sector through the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Nusbaum feels a great sense of fulfillment knowing his efforts have impacted so many people.

Committed to the Foodbank’s mission and development, Nusbaum served as its president, 1997-1999. During this time, he negotiated the purchase contract for its location on Tidewater Drive, while arranging and drafting its tax-exempt bond financing.

This past May, Nusbaum returned to Cambridge for his 35th college reunion from Harvard University, where he studied government. He is still convinced he learned as much from his fellow students as he did from his professors. As a member of the Southeastern Virginia Harvard Schools Committee for 30 years, Nusbaum has interviewed local high school seniors applying to his Alma mater. Seven of those years, he chaired the process.

In his fourth year at Harvard, Nusbaum was given the opportunity to turn his academic interest into an internship as a legislative assistant for a Norfolk member of the House of Delegates. That experience launched his involvement in Norfolk and state Democratic politics for two decades, culminating in his two-term chairmanship of the Norfolk City Democratic Committee, 1995–1999.

“My success in politics, in large part, was attributable to one of the better political organizers in Hampton Roads – my wife,” Nusbaum smiles. In 2000, Sharon was a leading delegate recruiter for the Gore campaign in Hampton Roads, and was named the “whip” of the Virginia Gore delegation when they both attended the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles as delegates.

Governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine appointed and then reappointed Nusbaum to chair the Virginia College Building Authority, 2002 – 2010. While the Authority issues bonds to enhance and expand facilities available for Virginia collegians, his interests in higher education and politics, along with his background as a municipal bond lawyer for Williams Mullen, made Nusbaum the perfect choice. Working closely during his first term with State Treasurer Jody Wagner, he enjoyed the position.

“When one door closes, another one opens,” Nusbaum says. In 2010 when the administration changed to Republican, he was not reappointed. Yet, within one day of learning of his replacement, he was appointed to the board of the Norfolk Airport Authority by the Norfolk City Council.

Nusbaum finds the Airport Authority “fascinating,” and uses his knowledge of commercial real estate and municipal bonds to help the airport prosper. In 2010, he was also appointed to the board of directors of Opportunity Inc., the Hampton Roads Workforce Development board.

No matter his life venture, Nusbaum’s actions exemplify the Jewish philosophy for repairing the world-Tikkun Olam. After serving 18 years on the Ohef Sholom board as a general member, he was elected second vice president in 2003, beginning his ascent through its leadership positions. One of his first tasks was to chair the search committee for the synagogue’s new rabbi.

“The ruach quickly spread with Rabbi Roz Mandelberg’s arrival in July, 2005,” according to Nusbaum. “We had a wonderful clergy partnership between Rabbi Mandelberg and Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel. They were soul mates on the bima,” he says. “Together they created a culture of inclusivity at Ohef Sholom.”

“That energy only grew with the arrival of Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin. His great musical talent and songwriting ability, combined with Rabbi Roz’s spirituality and erudite sermons, fostered a fabulous environment for worship. Our congregational participation for Shabbat services has greatly increased,” he says. “Working with the two of them while synagogue president (2007-2009) was truly a pleasure.”

With the recent merger of Ohef Sholom and Portsmouth’s Temple Sinai, the Norfolk synagogue’s chapel is now called, “The Sinai Chapel,” and Temple Sinai’s beloved rabbi, Arthur Steinberg, is now Ohef Sholom’s “Sinai Rabbi Emeritus.” Responsible for drafting the congregations’ Plan of Merger, Nusbaum refers to it as a “labor of love,” bringing the two religious institutions together.

“It was really fascinating for me to go through the process of crafting documents that reflected the human component of merging two distinct congregations. It was absolutely essential that the final instrument be sensitive, welcoming and supportive,” he says.

With that goal in mind, the ceremony on June 3 was upbeat as the two communities became one.

Effecting change, Nusbaum has brought his professional skills to his volunteer world and altered the “landscape” of Hampton Roads in so many ways. With his clarity, steadfastness and sense of purpose, he has turned his time and expertise into action, truly embodying the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam.

by Karen Lombart

Letter to the Editor