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Interview with Albert S. "Al" Rousso

Rousso, Albert S. "Al"
Hass, Steven
Date of Interview: 
Jews and Charlotte, NC; Jews and the South; Jewish organizations; anti-Semitism; politics; Jewish religious education; religion; Jewish identity; tokenism
Former City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Al Rousso talks about his experience in Charlotte's Jewish community. He heralds the religious education the temples offer to local children and the various activities for Jewish congregants. He recalls his own roles in various Jewish organizations and remembers others who were leaders in the community. Rousso contends that unlike other southern locales, Charlotte has been a progressive city where all citizens have the opportunity for success, despite their religious affiliation or race, and he sees his own accomplishments in business and local politics as proof of the city's openness toward diversity. He also discusses changes he's seen in Charlotte over the years that hint at an ever-increasing inclusiveness. Rousso discusses the importance of Judaism in his life and the sense of Jewish pride and identity with which he has inculcated his and others' children. Mr. Rousso died on October 27, 2001 at the age of seventy-six.
Charlotte, 1946-1989; Montgomery, AL, 1920s; San Bernardino, CA, 1940s
Interview Setting: 
Jewish Community Center, Charlotte, NC
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Collection Description: 
Charlotte Jewish Historical Society Collection
Interview Audio: 
SH (Steven Haas): The first thing we'll ask you to do is just to tell me your name and then if you can, when I ask the question--,
SE (Sam Eneman): (the JCC)
SH: stating your name and we'll, we'll begin.
AR (Albert S. "Al" Rousso): OK. My name is Al Rousso. I've lived in Charlotte for forty-three years. Seems like yesterday I came to Charlotte with a young bride and over the years we had four lovely sons. And it's just been a great pleasure living in this great city and watching it grow.
SH: Where did you come from?
AR: My home is originally Montgomery, Alabama, but we were working in San Bernardino in California when the opportunity came to come to Charlotte, to go into business. And we packed up and came to Charlotte. That's why we're here.
SH: What are your earliest memories of living in Charlotte and the Jewish community in particular, and are there any individuals that, you know, stand out from the time that you first came here?
AR: My earliest memories of Charlotte are very fond memories, very good memories. We came to a very close-knit Jewish community, having--, being raised in, in a small town in Montgomery, Alabama, a small close-knit Jewish community, we felt right at home here. We were involved in the first young couples' club in Charlotte that was formed by then Rabbi of Temple Israel, Aaron Tofield, and our friendships that started at that time are still with us today. Of course, there have been some sad times since then; we've lost some of those friends that we made here over forty-three years ago. My mind is just full of thoughts of Charlotte, the people that are no longer with us, people that I admired very much. Two people I admired, admired very much was Morris Spiezman, rest his soul, and I. D. Blumenthal. They did many things for the Jewish community, and their workings and vision are still with us today. I could talk and talk about my memories for the first years in Charlotte. Jewish education was available for our children, and all the children. I am very proud of the children that are now rabbis and, and Jewish educators that came from our Jewish school system. I could just continue to talk and talk about the quality of life that we've enjoyed here.
SH: What was it like to be Jewish in, within a larger community and being a, a Jew born in the South. Did you--? Was there an attitude that might have been different regarding anti-Semitism or bigotry that might have been compared to the way people in the larger Jewish communities might have behaved or reacted to?
AR: You know, I sit here and think about my very young years in Montgomery, Alabama, growing up as a Jewish child in the schools there was very difficult. We were looked down on; we were called certain names at certain times, which we went home in tears about. But when I moved to Charlotte, another southern city, of course this was years down the road, I didn't see that prejudice. I really didn't feel it. We came to a very liberal city. We saw that when we desegregated the schools with very little fanfare and trouble. I've never had any problem being a Jew here in Charlotte, and if my children had it, I, I don't recall hearing it. I think that Charlotte is a very, very open city. It's a religious city and maybe that's the reason why we didn't feel discriminated against. You know from the first days in Charlotte I've been very happy with the feeling that you have, that you're not being suppressed or looked at as a Jew. We were one of the first cities in the area to have a black mayor. [Laughter] I guess we were one of the first cities in this area that had a, a Jewish Mayor Pro Tem. I think that speaks for the quality of people that live here in Charlotte, North Carolina. And being on council for the last three years I haven't really felt any pressure about my being a Jew. I, I, I don't hold back the fact that I'm a Jew. I've spoken openly about certain invocations that have been held at our council meetings that are not non-denominational, non-sectarian. And in recent months I've seen the word Jesus not even being used anymore, so maybe I have gotten somewhere with that. The council now recognizes Jewish holidays, which they didn't even know about in years past. I think we Jews have made great strides in Charlotte and the area because of what we have done not only for our own people but for other people.
SH: You mentioned change in Charlotte. Are there any changes within the Jewish community itself that you have seen developed through the years? And, is there anything about the past that you miss that perhaps we could bring back? Or any positive things about the past?
AR: Well as I look back on the past, I, I, I do become a bit nostalgic. You have more fun when crowds are smaller, when you can go to a Jewish event and know Steve and Dick and Mina, and Nina and Sam. I find myself coming to shul at times, and we've taken in so many new members that I'm, I'm ashamed that I don't know many of them. But have things changed in the Jewish community? In my opinion, yes, they've changed, but they've changed for the better. There are so many activities in the Jewish community now for everybody, for the youngster, the teenager, the senior citizens. There, there are programs going on all the day at Shalom Park. There's something there for everybody. We have a school system. We have the--. Well I can go on and on. I think what has happened in Charlotte over the past forty years is a great improvement for the Jewish community. There's something for everyone that wishes to partake, that wishes to partake. They want to partake in this. There's something for everyone.
SH: What role did the actual synagogue play in your life, and did it lead you to involve yourself in organizations within the community?
AR: I grew up in a home where Judaism was the most important thing in that home. I grew up with a father who help found two Sephardic Congr--. I'm breaking up because it always breaks me up. You'll take that out won't you? When I came to Charlotte, I, I had thoughts of my father helping organize the Sephardic Jewish Congregation. I just can't talk about it.
SH: It's OK. We'll wait. Whenever you're ready. We can stop the camera. [RECORDING INTERRUPTED, THEN RESUMED]
AR: We knew, Doris and I knew that when we came to Charlotte we were going to become active in the community. We missed that. We lived in San Bernardino for about a year, San Bernardino, California, and there was very little Jewish life there. And she missed it, and I missed it. So when the opportunity came to, to come back to the South, we came to Charlotte and we immediately went to a synagogue, Temple Beth El. At that time they were holding their services on the second floor of a drug store. Rabbi Phillip Frankel was the rabbi at that time. A real great rabbi. I remember him to this day. I don't think I've seen him for forty years. But I guess because of him we did become active. We became active in forming a couples' club, meeting once a month, having dances and plays. And I've always had a great desire to be the president of the synagogue in the city which I was to live in. So I became active in Temple Israel because most of the friends who we started running around with were from Temple Israel. That's the only reason we moved from Temple Beth El to Temple Israel. Judaism is Judaism whether you wear a yarmulke or not, whether you wear a tallis or not. It's what's in here. I learned that at an early age. I became vice president of the couples' club, president. And then low and behold I was elected to the board of Temple Israel. I was on the board for a few years. I became secretary, treasurer, vice president, and I was very proud when I became president of Temple Israel for two years. And then I was elected as a regional vice president of United Synagogue of America. I've tried to instill in my children that we are nothing but stepping-stones, that we must leave an impression where we've been so others that follow has a stone to walk over. We hear very often that we are a link in a long chain, and I said it at many bar mitzvahs: keep that link strong so as the chain grows Judaism will be safe. Religion is a very personal thing with me. I don't expout it or shout it or like some people do, but I'm proud to be a Jew. I think because of that my children are proud to be Jews. We have kept our faith. I feel that I have contributed to that chain, and I feel that my children and their children will also do that.
SH: Do you think, can you look to any single event that happened in Charlotte that you think impacted this community the way that other events do in one way or another?
AR: I've always said that there's opportunity for everyone that wishes to take the chance or takes the gamble as some will say, or studies. I think one of the greatest events in my life was when I was elected to City Council. You're seeing the other side of me. I just can't talk.
SH: It's all right, Al. It's, you know, we're seeing things here today that are just incredible. You know, you--. We go through our lives so much moving forward that we take a step back and look what we've done. You know, it's a very personal thing.
AR: Yes.
SH: And it's very moving.
AR: [Laughter]
SH: And I think a lot of things are going to come out of here today that we've got to share with our kids. I think they, you know, you, people like you have seen this community go from a little
AR: Town.
SH: family to a booming town. I don't think--. I wonder how many times the people that have been involved in that have stopped to really reflect on it, maybe really reflect on it. Maybe that's what's happening today. You're not the first one.
AR: Huh?
SH: Whenever you're ready.
AR: Where were we?
SH: Well, about that elected, going about being elected to, to council, as a, as a great, a major event.
AR: You ready, Sam?
SH: Yep. Whenever you are.
AR: As I look back over my life, sixty-three wonderful years, there are so many happy events. When I was married was a very happy event. Each one of our sons were born they were very, very happy and joyous events and I remember every one of them like it was yesterday. [Pause] Huh. But I look back and it's true what I've told my children and other children: [Pause] this is a wonderful country. You can really do what you want to do. There are plenty of advantages around for you. When a, a Jewish boy from the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, who grew up very poor after losing his father when he was only twelve years old, can be the top folk at a, in a city election and be elected Mayor Pro Tem of such a large, dynamic city, not only once but twice. It proves to me that we live in a wonderful society. We really do. And as Harry Golden said, and it was so true at that time and it's true today, "Only in America."
SH: Do you feel that there are times that you carry a little bit more burden on your shoulders for the Jewish community in, in your role as an elected official? And you certainly can't disassociate yourself with them. How do you deal with that?
AR: I guess being Jewish also does unconsciously make me carry a little heavier burden. I think it does make me want to be more precise and more perfect, since maybe I could be called a token Jew, a term which I've never liked, a token black or a token Catholic. I guess I do carry that burden that I want to do real good, that I want my Jewish brethren to be proud of any statement that I make or any issue that I stand on. I guess there are people out there watching that Jew on the council and only a Jewish person would make a statement like that. But for that reason, I do work hard at my job as I think most of my Jewish friends work hard on their job. We are a minority but what a minority. What contributions have we given to this city? Great ones.
SH: Well I can only say, Al, in summation that, that tokens usually get appointed, they don't get elected. Thank you very much for sharing with us.
AR: [Laughter]