Rev. John Steinbruck, a champion of refuseniks, dies

rev. steinbruck
Rev. John Steinbruck

The Rev. John Steinbruck, who participated in the Soviet Jewry movement and continually worked to improve the lives of the disadvantaged in Washington, died March 1 in Delaware. He was 84 years old.

Steinbruck was pastor at Luther Place Memorial Church from 1970 to 1997. There, he worked together with members of Washington Hebrew and Adas Israel congregations to get the homeless off the street, fed and cared for. He was instrumental in forming N Street Village, a haven for homeless women.

“He was somebody who was passionate in his search for social justice at all times,” said Schroeder Stribling, executive director of N Street Village. Steinbruck worked for “justice and inclusion for everyone with a special passion for people who were disadvantaged, dismissed or discarded.”

During the 1970s, Steinbruck threw mattresses down in the aisles of his sanctuary in an attempt to ease the blight of homelessness in the city. Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, who died in 1999, assisted his members in bringing blankets and serving meals. The two clergymen became great friends and worked together for years.

Elaine Kremens knew Steinbruck for more than 20 years, often seeing him when she volunteered at the homeless shelter connected to his church. Kremens, along with other Adas Israel Congregation members, helped out at the shelter weekly and provided a meal once a month.

Inspired by his work, Kremens went on to spearhead Adas Israel’s creation of apartments for nine formerly homeless men and women who suffered from mental illness. It was Steinbruck who came up with the name, The Anne Frank House, for those apartments, she said.

“He was very, very outgoing. He was the kind of guy who could accept all kinds of people from all backgrounds,” she said.

Rabbi Avis Miller, formerly of Adas Israel, called Steinbruck “a force for good. He was truly a remarkable example of the difference one person can make in bettering the lives of those less fortunate.”

When Steinbruck was told by Brant Coopersmith, a former director of the American Jewish Committee, about the vigils opposite the Soviet Embassy, he quickly got involved. Steinbruck and some of his parishioners and fellow clergy members took turns at the vigil during the next years 20 years, in particular making sure it was manned during the Jewish holidays.

He also had congregation members send letters and cards to refuseniks. His congregation adopted at least seven refuseniks, including Natan Sharansky.

Steinbruck visited the former Soviet Union to meet with refusemiks and was part of Jewish Community Council’s delegations to the World Conferences on Soviet Jewry. He also traveled to Israel in 1969 as part of an interfaith trip. About that trip, he wrote, it was “a life watershed. Nothing was ever the same thereafter.”

Steinbruck wrote about his experiences and his paper was included in the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington’s exhibit, Voices of the Vigil. He moved to Delaware with his wife, Erna, following his retirement, and continued his social justice work there.

Steinbruck will be added to the Roll of Honor of the Archive of the American Soviet Jewry Movement at the American Jewish Historical Society.

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  1. As Executive Director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry I had many occasions to work with John Steinbruck. He was one of the most giving, and self effacing persons I knew. His support for the Jewish minority in the Former Soviet Union exhibited the depth of his religious commitment and willingness to be engaged with the pain of others. May his name be for a blessing.


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