Brooklyn Activist Lawyer Dies in Fall From Roof

February 24, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Beth Rasin

and Ranaan Geberer

DUMBO – Members of the Brooklyn and New York-area legal communities are mourning Michael Rothenberg, executive director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, who died tragically on Feb. 23 at the age of 47.

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Rothenberg was also active in the Brooklyn community, and was a dedicated volunteer at P.S. 8, where his children attended school.

According to the New York City Police Department, his body was found on a terrace at 100 Jay St., after he had apparently fallen from the roof. He was pronounced dead at the scene, according to police. 

Rothenberg graduated from Stuyvesant High School, Hamilton College and New York University Law School. His experience as a student activist at Hamilton College cemented his desire to pursue a career in public interest law. Rothenberg led a group of students who erected makeshift shelters on campus to protest the school’s investments in South Africa under apartheid.

As a law student at NYU, Rothenberg became president of both the Public Interest Law Foundation and Equal Justice Works, an organization devoted to providing funding for public advocacy training to law students across the country.

After graduation from NYU, Rothenberg became a litigator in the housing unit of Brooklyn Legal Services. He then won a fellowship at the Rockefeller Family Foundation, and subsequently worked on jury reform at the Vera Institute of Justice. He joined New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) as associate director in 1997.  NYLPI was the organization Michael had chosen to work for in connection with his Hays fellowship when he was at NYU.

“My goal has been to create a center where lawyers and community organizers can come together to create lasting social change for people in communities in need,” he said in the NYU Law Review.

When he was named executive director in 2001, he set to work developing the organization’s ties with community-based organizers and more fully leveraging the pro bono firepower of New York City’s elite corporate legal community. Under Rothenberg’s leadership, NYLPI’s budget quadrupled to $4 million, its staff more than doubled to 35, and the number of pro bono cases handled by private law firms increased fivefold to 250.

Rothenberg was also one of six leaders of legal services groups tapped by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in 2010 for a 30-member task force to come up with ways to boost funding for civil legal services.

Rothenberg is survived by his wife Zerline Goodman, their children, Brice, Garon and Zaya Rothenberg, his mother Eleanor and his brothers David and Seth.

Funeral services will be officiated by the family’s rabbi on Sunday, February 26 at 3 p.m. at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights (75 Hicks Street). The Burial will be on Monday, February 27 at 1 p.m. at Vassar Temple Cemetery, LaGrange Avenue Extension in Poughkeepsie.

For an extended tribute to Michael Rothenberg written by Beth Rasin, click here

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