He marched with King, later was cruise ship rabbi

By STEPHANIE HAYES, Times Staff Writer
Published January 10, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - Rabbi David Susskind spent long days serving his congregation, writing letters, making calls, visiting people.

In the evenings, he'd take catnaps before heading to meetings. But first, he'd have dinner with family. There were lively talks about politics, Judaism, what the kids had done that day.

They didn't know it, but he absorbed everything.

When his daughter, Sandra Block-Brezner, was in college, her sorority called the house to learn about her background and service organizations. Rabbi Susskind picked up the phone.

"I was shocked. He gave it all to them," his daughter said. "He really knew what was going on."


He was born into a big, Orthodox family.

"He was a little bit of a rebel," his daughter said, "always questioning things that went on in orthodoxy. He just wanted answers to things."

He was affected by the Holocaust and was driven to help people. He spoke French, Hebrew, Yiddish and English. In 1949, he became a rabbi.

He served in Texas and Ohio before coming to Florida. In St. Petersburg, he found his stride, leading Temple Beth-El for 30 years before retiring in 1985.

"He married, bar mitzvahed, birthed and brissed a lot of people in St. Petersburg," said Block-Brezner, 59.

He belonged to Judaism's liberal Reform branch. In 1965, he joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Selma, Ala., freedom march.

He was a voracious reader and had a quick wit. When house guests came over, he'd ask whether they were thirsty. Then he'd say, "Get me some water while you're in the kitchen."

Once, when his niece bragged about her omelet skills, he said, "Make me one." It wasn't lunchtime. He wasn't hungry. She made it anyway. And she never boasted in front of him again.


After retiring at age 60, he set sail as a cruise ship rabbi. He got to travel for free and spend time with his wife, Bernice, who died of breast cancer in 1991.

He presided over Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah. He married passengers. He prayed when they got sick. Once, when the ship's priest became ill, he organized an Easter sunrise service.

Back home, he battled diabetes, but he still swam every day. He told his daughter not to worry. "I've made arrangements with God," he said.

On Monday, he died. He was 84.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or 727 893-8857.


Rabbi David Susskind

Born: July 7, 1923.

Died: Jan. 7, 2008.

Survivors: Children, Brian Susskind, Sandra Block-Brezner; brother, Ralph Susskind; sisters, Dorothy Susskind, Malka Gordon; grandchildren, Zachary Susskind, Stacy Rebecca Block. Predeceased by his wife, Bernice Susskind; son, Jonathan Susskind; sisters, Beatrice Weinstein, Fanny Ziff.

Services: 2 p.m. today at Temple Beth-El, 400 Pasadena Avenue S. Burial will follow at Royal Palm Cemetery South.