The Rev. Julius A. Goldwater, an early American convert to Buddhism revered for safeguarding the belongings of hundreds of Japanese Americans forced into internment campus during World War II, died June 11 at his Los Angeles home after an illness. He was 93.
A descendant of a German Jewish clan that included late Sen. Barry Goldwater, his first cousin, he became an ordained Buddhist priest in the 1930s, when Buddhism was relatively unknown in the United States and white converts were rare. He went on to teach Buddhism in Los Angeles for almost 70 years.
“As a priest, he was a pioneer in this country,” said the Venerable Walpola Piyananda, president of the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, when new waves of immigration brought Buddhists from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Korea and other countries to the U.S., Goldwater helped them get settled and establish temples, often with money from his own pocket. He was part of the group, along with Piyananda, that founded the Buddhist Sangha Council in the 1980s to draw together diverse representatives of the Southland’s growing Buddhist community.
Goldwater was born in 1908 to a well-to-do Los Angeles family. He encountered Buddhism as a teenager when he went to live with his father in Hawaii after his mother’s death. There he was impressed by the teachings of three men: the Rev. Ernest Hunt, an Englishman who had become a Buddhist minister; Yeimyo Imamura, a Japanese bishop; and Tai Xu, a Chinese monk. In 1928, he started a study group called the Buddhist Brotherhood in America and began to teach Buddhism in Los Angeles.
During the 1930s, he was ordained in Kyoto, Japan, by the Jodo Shinshu sect. He was ordained again in Hangzhou, China, where he spent time in a monastery. He took a Buddhist name, Subhadra.
In the late 1930s, he returned to Los Angeles to become a minister at a large Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo. Then called Homba Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, it was built at First and Central streets, the site now occupied by the Japanese American National Museum.
He had been recruited by the temple’s Japanese-immigrant elders, who feared that their American-born children were rejecting Buddhism as too “old country.” As one of the very few white Buddhists, Goldwater “was brought in to show that you could be American and you could be Buddhist,” said the Venerable Sunyatha, one of Goldwater’s disciples.
Goldwater succeeded in reversing a ban on social dancing imposed by the elders, “which created quite a stir,” recalled the Rev. Arthur Takemoto, who belonged to the temple’s youth group in the 1930s.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans on the West Coast in early 1942, Goldwater’s role became even more critical.
As the only priest in the local Buddhist diocese who was not of Japanese ancestry, he “assumed responsibility for all the temples in the district,” said the Rev. Mas Kodani of Senshin Buddhist Temple near USC.
The Little Tokyo temple became a warehouse for the furniture and other possessions left behind by evacuees. During their incarceration, Goldwater, at his own expense, traveled to camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas, bearing gifts, Buddhist study materials and news of the outside world. He watched over internees’ homes, preventing the illegal sale of one by alerting the FBI. He wrangled with suspicious officials, trying to make them understand that Buddhism was autonomous and not connected with the Japanese government.
“He was really admired for his compassion,” said Takemoto, who regarded Goldwater as a lifelong mentor. “We didn’t have anyone else.”
When the internees were released at the end of World War II, he turned the temple near USC into a hostel, where they could find temporary housing as well as other assistance, such as obtaining a job, a driver’s license and gas rations. When a congregant needed a car, he lent his own.
When anti-Japanese grocers refused to sell them food, Goldwater “would go out and buy it,” recalled Kodani, a temple member who was a child during the war years. “He was very energetic, very dedicated to Buddhism . . . and feisty--he had to be to do all of that.”
He was called “Jap lover” by non-Japanese. His house was defaced. Even the local bishop frowned on his advocacy and had him censured by the temple’s governing body, which led to Goldwater’s resignation. In the conservative Goldwater clan, he was viewed, he once told The Times, “as some kind of clever traitor.”
Goldwater, who had observed the persecution of German Americans during World War I, resisted attempts to paint his actions as heroic. “I only behaved as any American would have done,” he told the Daily News in 1992.
Many temple members never forgot what he did for them. In 1991, one former congregant sent him $500 from the $20,000 she received in reparations from the U.S. government.
“I wrote back and said, ‘As long as I live, I won’t cash it,’ ” Goldwater said, “ ‘but I accept it in the spirit it was written.’ ”
After leaving the temple, Goldwater concentrated on teaching through his study group, leading weekly sessions until he became too ill last year to continue. Although ordained in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, he was not a follower of any one sect and tried to spread the view that Buddhism belonged to America as much as to any other culture.
He is survived by his wife of 71 years, Pearl. A memorial will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday at Senshin Buddhist Temple, 1311 W. 37th St., Los Angeles.