By Beth Rasin
Michael Rothenberg, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2012 at the age of 47, was an inspirational leader in the New York City social justice community.
Michael’s seriousness of purpose about living a life grounded in the principles in which he believed was leavened by a razor sharp wit and penchant for puns. Each year, his introductory remarks at the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest Law and Society luncheon were punctuated by a pun that played on the favor provided for attendees.
He was an accomplished squash player who served as President of the Metropolitan Squash Racquets Association and a member of the Board of Directors of U.S. Squash. He was always available to counsel law students and young lawyers, and constantly making connections for the wide array of individuals in his network.
Michael’s chocolate chip cookies were a much in-demand treat that he could be persuaded to whip up on a moment’s notice. He was a dedicated volunteer at P.S. 8 where his children attended school. Above all else, he was devoted to his family – his wife Zerline and their three children, Brice, Garon and Zaya.
Born in New York City, Michael graduated from Stuyvesant High School, Hamilton College and New York University Law School. Michael’s interest in social justice initially stemmed from observing his highly educated parents struggle to find schooling for his developmentally disabled brother.
His experience as a student activist at Hamilton College cemented his desire to pursue a career in public interest law. Michael led a group of students who erected makeshift shelters on campus to protest the school’s investments in South Africa under apartheid. The college’s attempt to get a federal injunction requiring the shelters be dismantled was foiled by a trio of civil rights attorneys who came to the students’ defense—renowned activist lawyer Victor Rabinowitz; Michael Krinsky, Mr.Rabinowitz's partner in Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman; and Haywood Burns, who later became the first dean of City University of New York School of Law.
As a law student at NYU, Michael became president of both the Public Interest Law Foundation and Equal Justice Works, an organization devoted to providing funding for public advocacy training to law students across the country. He also was awarded an Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program Fellowship as part of a program run by Norman Dorsen, the Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law, and Sylvia Law, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry.
“They were giants in the public interest world,” Michael said in an interview with NYU Law upon his selection as Alumnus of the Month in August 2011. “They gave me a platform to explore a range of work from big impact litigation to launching demonstration projects.”
After graduation from NYU, Michael became a litigator in the housing unit of Brooklyn Legal Services. He then won a fellowship at the Rockefeller Family Foundation, and subsequently worked on jury reform at the Vera Institute of Justice. Drawn to institution-building, MIchael joined New York Lawyers for the Public Interest as Associate Director in 1997. NYLPI, whose mission is advancing equality and civil rights, with a focus on health justice, disability rights and environmental justice, through community lawyering and partnerships with the private bar, was the organization Michael had chosen to work for in connection with his Hays fellowship when he was at NYU.
Michael developed a vision for deepening NYPLI’s impact on its clients’ communities. “My goal has been to create a center where lawyers and community organizers can come together to create lasting social change for people in communities in need,” he said in the NYU Law interview. This broad mandate was driven by the idea that modern civil rights advocacy is as much about ensuring rights of opportunity as it is about protecting strict legal rights. When he was named executive director in 2001, he set to work developing the organization’s ties with community-based organizers and more fully leveraging the pro bono firepower of New York City’s elite corporate legal community.
Those efforts translated into rapid growth and increased leverage. Under Michael’s leadership, NYLPI’s budget quadrupled to $4 million, its staff more than doubled to 35 and the number of pro bono cases handled by private law firms increased fivefold to 250.
Michael was one of six leaders of legal services groups tapped by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in 2010 for a 30-member task force to come up with ways to boost funding for civil legal services. As a result of the group’s proposals, the court system pumped an additional $12.5 million into free legal services for the poor this year despite having to cut its budget by $170 million.
A man with an enormous heart, a compassionate soul and a burning desire to better the lives of others, Michael Rothenberg is survived by his wife Zerline Goodman, their children, Brice, Garon and Zaya Rothenberg, his mother Eleanor and his brothers David and Seth.