Nemser, Rudolph

Rudolph NemserRudolph William Nemser (July 31, 1928-August 3, 2002), Unitarian Universalist minister, was a social activist, poet, liturgist, and teacher. An energetic individualist with varied interests, he made significant contributions to the Civil Rights movement, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and the Partner Church program. He was well-known throughout the liberal religious movement as highly principled and courageous. Although always thoughtful and considerate of other views, he did not “hide his light under a bushel.”

Rudy was the son of Charlotte Johanna Beyer and Maximilian Mark Nemser, a New York City physician specializing in urology. Charlotte, an immigrant from Germany, was his nurse. Dr. Nemser was born in New York of parents who were Russian Jewish immigrants. His great-grandfather, Mark Nemser, was the Grand Rabbi of Vilna, Lithuania and the representative of the Russian Jewish community to the court of the Czar. Since 1970, Rudy’s older brother William has lived in Austria, where he is a professor of linguistics at the University of Klagenfurt.

His mother’s family, originally Lutheran, had attended the Congregationalist church in Sherman, Connecticut. His father had grown up in the liberal Jewish tradition. “Our home respected both religious traditions,” Nemser later wrote. “My brother and I went to weekly classes at the local Reformed synagogue, said the Lord’s Prayer every night, and graduated from Trinity, an Episcopal school.” Because of their Jewish background, the Nemser boys were bullied at Trinity. Every year Dr. Nemser took his sons to hear the preaching of the independent Unitarian John Haynes Holmes. This, he told them, is where our beliefs are expressed.

Nemser attended Harvard University and the Harvard Divinity School, earning three degrees: AB in English Literature, 1950; STB; and STM, 1952. He taught Early Church History at Harvard, 1952-54. In 1952 he was ordained at the First Unitarian Society of Whitman, Massachusetts, his student parish. He served the Unitarian society in Harvard, Massachusetts, 1954-60, beginning his ministry there while still a student and teaching fellow at the Harvard Divinity School. Here he presided over the local chapter of the Red Cross and was on a Massachusetts state committee which oversaw the blood donation program.

Rudy’s personal life was as busy as his professional life: he was married five times and divorced three times. In 1951 he married Eleanor “Drew” Kelly with whom he had his daughters Sarah and Katherine. In 1960 he married Joan Alison Cooledge Polk, a union which produced his youngest daughter Tobey. Rudy was married in 1971 to Helena Palmer Chapin, in 1983 to Elizabeth Taber McGrew (d.1988), and to Judith Wright, a Unitarian Universalist minister, from 1991 until the time of his death. Despite the challenges domestic life presented him, Rudy remained close with his daughters, as well as to his nephew, Bill, throughout his life. Nemser was aware that, as a minister, in his personal and family life he was expected to be an exemplar. He did not think it possible, however, to model a perfect life. Instead, he thought of himself as “a fallible, yet concerned, human being who struggles to treat people with dignity and care, to establish honest and loving bonds with other people, and—regardless of the past—to maintain faith in the possibilities of the future.” To help divorcing couples negotiate their difficult life passage in an affirmative and cooperative way, he created a “Service for Divorce.”

While at the Unitarian society in Fairfax, Virginia, 1960-73, Nemser was a civil rights and an anti-war activist. He was arrested for leading a demonstration against the Virginia law that prohibited protest of segregation laws. He participated in civil rights marches in the Washington D.C. area and, in 1965, took part in the march on Selma. He also helped found the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), counseled conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, worked for the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, chaired the Fairfax County Human Relations Commission, was president of the Family Service Association of Northern Virginia, and supported the emerging feminist movement.

Nemser developed guidelines for ministerial conduct that were adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) in 1968. These guidelines, in revised form, are still in use. In 1982 the UUMA honored him with its Meritorious Service Award.

At the Unitarian society in Schenectady, New York, 1973-83, he brought a measure of stability to a church that had experienced a period of short ministries. While serving the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, 1983-2000, he established a relationship between the Cherry Hill congregation and the Unitarian church in Czekelyderzs, Transylvania. He visited there two months out of every year and learned Hungarian in order to preach there. At Cherry Hill, as he did throughout his career, he took a leading role in interfaith activities. He also served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Greater Camden, New Jersey. His final sermon there was titled “Everything I Always Wanted to Tell You but Never Dared.”

For many years he served as scribe of the Berry Street Conference that sponsored essayists at Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assemblies. He was a president of the Joseph Priestley District and of the Murray Grove Association. He initiated the annual John Murray Distinguished Lectures presented at General Assemblies and helped promote their publication. He became a member of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn in 1972, and played a significant part in opening its membership to women and African Americans.

“I believe in the significance of the religious quest in individuals’ lives,” Nemser wrote. He thought that people should be encouraged “to value their own thinking and beliefs,” for “this is the essence of Unitarian Universalism.” He also had a collective vision for the church. It is “a manifestation of democratic belief and behavior. The only truly liberal leadership derives and gains evidence from the people of the community.” The focus of his religion was engagement with people.

Nemser’s publications included “We Are Not Alone: The Origins of the UUMA Guidelines” plus four slim volumes of poetry: Moments of a Springtime: Pieces for Reflection, 1967; Time Before the Sunset: Poems for All Souls, 1979; Mortal Beauty, 1988; and Consider the Impatiens, 1996. Many of his poems had previously appeared in church newsletters.

Although Nemser considered himself an agnostic, he did not shy away from theological and Christian topics in his poetry. Prayer, God, Christmas, Easter, Jesus all found places. “No way of touching and caring for the people of my ministry has been as satisfying as the expression of poetry,” he wrote. “I like myself and our community best when I write the poems we have created. They run like scarlet threads through the fabric of our common life.” His spirituality often came through in his poetry. The following words served as the introduction to his volume, Mortal Beauty: “The truths of the universe are revealed in moments and glances. These pieces reflect my experience and learnings from these sacred times.”

In the 1980s Nemser earned an M.S. degree and a Certificate of Advanced Study, both in Counseling Psychology, from the State University of New York. In the 1990s he taught at Drew University and Lancaster Theological Seminary. In 1999 he received an honorary degree from Meadville/Lombard Theological School. At the time of his death he was pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at Tufts University.

Nemser died of cancer in Arlington, Massachusetts. Brad Greeley, his long-time friend and colleague, and Melanie Sullivan, his successor at Cherry Hill, led the memorial service. His ashes were interred at the Cherry Hill church.

Most of the information in this article came from family records, the author’s journals, and conversations and correspondence with friends and relations of Rudolph Nemser. There are obituaries in the Philadelphia Inquirer (August 8, 2002) and the Boston Globe (August 13, 2002).

Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted November 30, 2008