Interview with Marshall Rauch
Those members of the TMI community who attended the most recent Kallah will no doubt recall the wit and wisdom of Marshall Rauch, who regaled us with tales from his business and political careers and demonstrated that, at age 91, he has not lost any of his zest for life or passion for learning. I had the privilege of speaking with the longtime state senator from North Carolina by phone in February about his background, Mussar studies, and perspective on justice and politics.
Following is a slightly condensed transcript of our conversation. The full interview can be heard here.
Jason Winston: We are going to talk today for our March issue of Yashar broadly on our theme of Justice. Because of your career as a legislator in North Carolina, we wanted to take this opportunity to see where the conversation might steer us. … Can you tell me a bit about your upbringing and Jewish background?
Marshall Rauch: Yes. I was brought up in Woodmere. That’s the Rockaways, Long Island, New York. My paternal grandparents were Orthodox. … I was bar mitzvahed in Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, an Orthodox shul. I didn’t pay enough attention to my studies after my bar mitzvah. I think many fellows will say that. Of course, we lived in a Jewish home and celebrated all the holidays and Shabbos. And I went to school at Duke, which was a Methodist school, but I kept my Judaism with me always, including when I was in [the military] service and my entire life. It’s the basis of what I am and who I am and what I have tried to instill in my children.
JW: That’s great. So I know Mussar is a fairly recent discovery for you. Can you tell me a little about how you came to discover Mussar, and how the study and practice [have] impacted you?
MR: Yes. I’d say the study of Mussar—although I took it up as Mussar when I was 88, and I’m 91 now—but I think all my life I was trying to live that way. I just didn’t have a term for it. Specifically, I lived in a Jewish world and I was always enamored—I guess that would be the word—by Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity. And through that perhaps I developed my own little bit of Mussar where I felt and actually believe that secret mitzvahs instill tremendous inner strength within you, if you can do it.
Then about three years ago, our rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Gastonia, No. Carolina—he’s Dr. Charlie Brown—had a Mussar class. And after the first class, I said, “This is for me.” And the first book I ever got was Dr. Morinis’s Every Day, Holy Day. For three years, I read and reread that book, one page a day. I’m so sure that Mussar has changed my life, made me such a happier person, I talk about Mussar all the time.
JW: As many of us do, I’m sure. So I know a bit about your legislative career. I know that you had quite a long stint in North Carolina government. … Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your career and some of the highlights and accomplishments. And also as a lawmaker, did you apply to your work a sense of social justice that has roots in the Jewish values that you were brought up with?
MR: There’s no doubt, and I’m pleased to say it, that I was attempting to do what someone who’s studied Mussar, I was attempting to do it all my life. Let’s start this way, politically. I just like politics. In high school I was involved. In college I was involved. Then I came to live in Gastonia, having met my wife at Duke and married her right after the war. And I got involved in recreation—I always had been. There just weren’t good recreational facilities for the kids, and that prompted me to run for the city council, and that was the beginning.
I went on the city council in Gastonia, and the social justice aspect really loomed there. In the early ’60s with the Civil Rights movement, it was a little surprising, because Gastonia had and still has about 50 Jewish people out of about 110,000. I was asked to serve as chairman of what they called the Human Relations Committee, which handled the integration of blacks and whites. That committee did an exceptional job. … We integrated the city and the county without any physical issues. It was all done around the table. And as a result of that, I went on a statewide committee, and probably as a result of that, I ran for the State Senate.
It was an interesting situation, because I was the first Jew to serve in the North Carolina Senate. And you add the fact that I was born in New York, so I was quite an oddity.…
I was very fortunate because I was well accepted in the Senate. … The first day in the Senate, I didn’t know what was going on, and one of the senators stood up and moved that one of the rules be changed. Previous rules would not permit anybody to wear a hat on the floor of the Senate or in the balcony. And it was just a beautiful gesture on his part. And they voted, and they changed it. He explained that there are some people, some religions, primarily Orthodox Jews, who would prefer to wear a hat and we couldn’t get any rabbis to perform a service, nor could Orthodox Jews be comfortable because they wanted to wear a hat. It was a very touching thing, and that’s how my career started.
And it just got better, because in time I became chairman of the Finance Committee. I was chairman 14 years. I was in the Senate 24 years. And I was also chairman of the Ethics Committee, which I think was a compliment to Judaism because everybody knew who I was and what I did. Eventually, just on [seniority], I became dean of the Senate, and then, they rank senators by vote of the media, lobbyists and the other senators, and I was ranked No. 1 in effectiveness.
But the thing I’m proud of is I was able to establish Jewish social justice. Specifically, about 1985, there was a 7% income tax on all income earned in North Carolina, no matter how poor or how wealthy you were. You paid a 7% income tax. And I headed up a study commission, and then I handled the legislation on the floor of both houses. We eliminated all people living under the poverty level, which at that time was a family of four not making $14,000 a year. We eliminated them, all of them, from the state income tax of 7%. And I’m probably as proud of that as anything that I was able to do.
Interestingly, North Carolina this past year cut all income taxes out. But at that time if you were making $12,000 a year, and that’s all you made, you had to pay the $800 in state income tax. That was a brutal blow. So we were able to change that.
JW: And you were able, I guess, to make a persuasive argument that the benefit to the state vs. the harm to those individuals …
MR: That’s correct. For those people it was terribly important to them.
And then, as far as my political career went, I left the Senate and I became chairman of the budget committee for the University of North Carolina higher education system. We had 16 universities, and I was there for six years. So I’ve had a fine political career.
But I think the thing my father was proudest of—because he didn’t really like politics—I was able to handle legislation that made Yom Kippur a state holiday in North Carolina. And it still is.
JW: Do you recall what motivated you to enter politics in the first place? Was it the social justice? Was that the passion?
MR: No. I was doing it because I liked it, and I still do. And it just turned out that I was able to bring a lot of my ideas, a lot of Maimonides’ ideas, a lot of our Torah’s ideas into the living Christian world today, because there are very few Jews in North Carolina.
JW: What does justice mean to you?
MR: Justice means charity. Exactly the word tzedakah. You have to do what you can for others, and all people are to be treated equally.
JW: So, having studied some of the middot, the soul traits, which do you see are present or are needed in the world of government and legislating? Maybe from your experience before, or even in the present day. Do you get a sense of that when you read about the middot?
MR: Oh, yeah. There’s one that just stands out: courage. The problem as I see it with legislators today is they get elected, and then they become immediately afraid they won’t be re-elected. They don’t have the ability to determine that they are going to do what is best for the people. They are doing what is best to get them re-elected. I believe in Dr. Alan Morinis’s book, under courage, it specifically says that the person—you!—should pursue what is right and do whatever is called for without fear of your own safety or benefit. Do it for others. What those legislators are doing, in my opinion, they are doing what they feel will get them re-elected regardless of what that does to the people they are actually representing.
JW: Is there anything you’ve learned in Mussar that you wish you had known when you were active in politics?
MR: Without a doubt. I’m getting smarter every day (laughs). There’s a whole lot I know now I didn’t know 40 years ago. It’s just experience. It’s things that you learn from seeing other people’s lives, your lives, and … you try to make your life individually better to help other people. And that’s Mussar. Somebody said it before me, that it’s a shame we don’t know everything when we’re young. But that’s experience.
JW: All right. Is there anything else that you’d like to add to this discussion?
MR: I would say Mussar has changed my life more than any other thing or any other study or any other philosophy. And I really believe that my family and friends are the benefit. … I think Mussar shows you, points you, into the directions of helping other people, and all of those other people that you help become like beacons in your life. And any time you see somebody you have positively affected in a positive way, you get a smile from them. And before you know it, you get a lot of smiles from a lot of people, and it makes your life so much better and so much happier.
JW: I agree. That is a great attestation of what we’re all trying to do. And I’m really grateful to you for taking the time to share this with us.
MR: Happy to. I look forward to seeing you at the next Kallah, and I look forward to meeting the other people who are going to come.
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