At a June celebration for his 50 years of leadership at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island in Garden City, more than 100 friends, relatives and congregation members gathered to literally sing the praises of Arthur Dobrin.
There was even a “Rapp” song — a tune called “Song of Arthur” by longtime friend Richard Rapp, 90, that he performed with his wife, Sybil. The Bayside couple rhapsodized Dobrin as “a gentle, gentle man / teacher, leader and guide, poet, colleague and friend.”
Other guests serenaded the honoree with his favorite songs, such as “My Funny Valentine” and “Imagine.” But the showstopper was when Dobrin took the stage and, according to his wife and fellow society member, Lyn, 75, sang in public for the first time.
Befitting his longtime advocacy for social justice, Dobrin’s rendition of “The House I Live In,” restored a line about “neighbors white and black” censored from Frank Sinatra’s 1945 paean to American values.
“I love the song, but couldn’t sing the censored version,” said Dobrin, 74, of Westbury. “My neighbors on my street are white and black, so including it was also the idealism that I believe in and an honest expression of my lived reality.”
Ethical Humanism, also known as Ethical Culture, is a religion committed to creating a just and caring world, respecting the dignity and worth of every individual and assuming responsibility for one’s own character.
“We are humanists, which means being committed to values that make the world a better place,” Dobrin said.
Teaching ethics in the classroom, in his writings and by his own example has been central to Dobrin’s professional and private life. Even since his 2001 retirement as leader of the Garden City congregation, Dobrin has continued to guide the society as leader emeritus, authoring novels and a blog for Psychology Today, and teaching media and business ethics courses at Hofstra University.
“It’s great having a live-in ethicist,” said Lyn Dobrin, a public relations consultant for the Adelphi New York Breast Cancer Program and columnist for the Westbury Times. “I can count on him to help me think things through.”
Bart Worden, executive director of the American Ethical Union in Manhattan, said, “Arthur and Lyn show a lot of care for the world around them, and when things need to be done, they step in and do them.” He recalled that during a refugee crisis, the couple not only organized the placement of families but also hosted a family in their home.
Worden said Dobrin is a regular guest speaker at his congregation, the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester in White Plains, and occasionally stops in to read his children’s book, “Love Your Neighbor” (1999), to kids in the society’s ethics for children program.
DOUGHNUTS AND DIPLOMAS
Born in Brooklyn, Dobrin began writing at age 13, on a typewriter his brothers gave him. His mother worked in a Wall Street women’s hat store, and his father was a Teamsters union truck driver who later owned his own company delivering pastries to bakeries. “I was raised on jelly doughnuts,” Dobrin joked.
Dobrin attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where he played forward on the basketball team — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on one of the opposing teams — and faced one of his earliest ethical dilemmas.
To get a Regents diploma, Dobrin was told he had to sign a loyalty oath to the government. “This was the McCarthy era,” Dobrin said. “It seemed to me to be a violation of one’s conscience to be compelled to make your allegiance public. “I said, ‘I’m not going to sign,’ but the vice principal read me the Riot Act.” Threatened with losing his chance to go to City College of New York, Dobrin signed — shortly before such oaths were abolished.
After a semester at college, he took a leave of absence to join the Army Reserves, serving from 1961 to 1965.
“I was as un-Army as you could possibly imagine, always on the fringes of getting into trouble,” Dobrin said. “When we took apart our machine gun, I didn’t know how to put it back together again, my boots never had a mirror shine, and at night I was in my bunk reading ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ”
Eventually, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from the City College of New York in 1964, with an honor’s thesis on the history of Black Jews in America that was archived in the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.
During reserve duty, Dobrin met and fell in love with Lyn, the sister of an Army buddy, and they married in 1964. A year later, they joined the second group of Peace Corps volunteers in Kenya. They worked with coffee farm cooperatives in the East African nation, opening their small home as a gathering place for local women in need of child care and health counseling.
THE BUSINESS DASHIKI
In 1967, Dobrin and Lyn with their son, Eric, 2, returned to the States. While in Kenya, he applied for his leadership position with the Ethical Humanist Society. For his first day on the job, Dobrin bought two suits but they stayed in the closet. Instead he donned his dashiki, which became a familiar sight at the society’s 11 a.m. Sunday meetings, known as platforms, at funerals and at the 1,000 weddings Dobrin estimates he officiated at during the next 33 years.
Rapp, a retired political organizer, was the first new member Dobrin interviewed for membership. During the interview — really an orientation where the leader answers questions about membership obligations — Dobrin was impressed with Rapp’s skills at organization and governance. Rapp went on to serve as the congregation’s president longer than anyone else during Dobrin’s tenure. Rapp says Dobrin has advised him on ethical matters from parenting to financing. “He’s a real rock,” Rapp said. “Arthur has made me more responsible toward other human beings than anyone else in my life.”
Dobrin made one of his first ethical decisions in choosing housing near his Garden City office a year after the birth of their daughter Kori, now 49.
“We wanted to live in an integrated community,” Dobrin said. “Our second choice was a black community, and our third choice — and not acceptable at all — was an all-white community.” When Dobrin told the real estate agent he wanted to look in Westbury, the agent replied, “You don’t want to live there.” They stood firm and moved into their home in 1969.
Most often, however, Dobrin said he tries to listen to both sides of an argument before making an ethical judgment.
He completed the Nassau County Police Department’s Civilian Police Academy, a 14-week training program that promotes communication between law enforcement and the community. And two years ago, he created a Communities and Police Talk website on which the public and the police can share their opinions about topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
In retirement, Dobrin keeps lean and fit by lifting weights three times a week. He’s also working on his 28th book, “The House I Live In,” which he said is a “fictitious history” of houses in his neighborhood.
And in contentious times, he’ll keep showing up at protest rallies. “I haven’t been the organizer or the speaker” because, he said, “young people need to take over.”
He said his “dedication has always been to the democratic process and to social justice. It just galls me that people are not treated fairly. If I see there’s something I can do, I will do it.”