Civil rights

Rabbi Israel Dresner, civil rights champion and ally king, dies at 92

Israel S. Dresner, a New Jersey rabbi who ventured to the Deep South in the 1960s to advocate for civil rights, befriended the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and was imprisoned multiple times for demonstrating against racial segregation, died on January 13. in Wayne, NJ He was 92 years old.

His death, at a senior living facility, was caused by colon cancer, his son, Avi, said.

By the time Rabbi Dresner joined the civil rights movement, he was already a veteran of political protests, having been arrested at age 18 in 1947 outside the British Empire Building at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan to protest Britain’s refusal to Britain to let the Exodus, a ship loaded with Holocaust survivors, land in British-held Palestine, an incident that inspired Leon Uris’ 1958 novel of the same name and a subsequent film.

In 1961, as part of the first Interfaith Clergy Freedom Ride to the South, Rabbi Dresner and nine others, known as the “Tallahassee Ten,” were charged with unlawful assembly while attempting to enter an airport restaurant in Tallahassee, Florida.

They were released on bail following their sentencing and, with Rabbi Dresner as the lead plaintiff, appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which returned the case in Florida courts. He and the others then returned to Florida to serve brief prison sentences.

In 1962, in Albany, Georgia, he was charged with what has been described as the nation’s largest mass arrest of religious leaders, during a march demanding desegregation. It was there that he first met Dr King, shaking hands through the bars of the cell in which Dr King had also been imprisoned along with hundreds of other protesters.

In 1964, Rabbi Dresner led 16 other clergy, including other rabbis, in a protest outside a segregated motel in St. Augustine, Florida. During the protest, five black protesters dove into the whites-only pool and were bludgeoned by police.

“We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood silently watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria,” the rabbis said after their arrest. “We came because we know that after silence, the greatest danger for man is the loss of confidence in man’s ability to act.”

Dr. King wrote to Rabbi Dresner that year: “It is your valiant act that touches the conscience of Americans of goodwill. Your example is a judgment and an inspiration to each of us.

In 1965, at the request of Dr King, Rabbi Dresner said a prayer in Selma, Alabama, two days after protesters were brutally attacked by law enforcement on what has been immortalized as Sunday. bloody as protesters attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. travel to Montgomery, the state capital, to demand the right to vote.

Dr. King returned the favor by preaching twice at Rabbi Dresner’s synagogue, Temple Sha’arey Shalom, in Springfield, NJ

Credit…Courtesy of the Dresner family

In total, Rabbi Dresner was convicted in three civil rights cases, his son said. His last arrest took place in 1980 outside the South African consulate in New York during a demonstration against apartheid.

In 2015, he told the Register of Saint Augustine that Jewish doctrine had persuaded him to follow his conscience to act in the cause of civil rights with the belief “that racism and slavery in America were wrong, and segregation in America was wrong”.

After being diagnosed with colon cancer, he says NPR at the end of last year, “I feel a little guilty leaving today’s world where the forces of hatred and discrimination seem to be increasing and where democracy seems to be in danger”.

He was able, at least, to complete his personal agenda, his son said. He visited the graves of his parents and grandparents with his children, went to a Broadway show (“The Book of Mormon”), attended services at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, and ate pastrami on rye to The delicatessen of Katz in the Lower East Side.

Israel Seymour Dresner (known as Sy or Si) was born April 22, 1929 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Eastern European immigrants. The family moved to Borough Park in Brooklyn, where her father, Abe, owned a deli not far from Ebbets Field. His mother, Rose (Sternchos) Dresner, was a housewife.

After attending Orthodox Jewish schools and graduating from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, he went to Brooklyn College, attended the Habonim Institute to become an organizer for the Labor Zionist youth movement, and earned a master’s degree in relations. from the University of Chicago in 1950.

He was hitchhiking across Europe and working in a kibbutz in the Negev desert when he learned in a telegram from his mother that he had been conscripted. He served in the army from 1952 to 1954 in Indiana, where he became a chaplain’s assistant.

Rabbi Dresner was in his twenties when, in 1954, he enrolled in Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Rabbinical Seminary of Manhattan. He was ordained in 1961.

“I think becoming a rabbi was his way of merging his Orthodox upbringing and background with his Zionist political activism and his passion for social justice,” Avi Dresner said of his father.

Israel Dresner was a student rabbi at a congregation in Danbury, Connecticut, and then at the reformed congregation Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield from 1958 to 1960, after which he became its first full-time rabbi.

His marriage to Toby Silverman ended in divorce in 1991. Besides his son, he is survived by their daughter, Tamar; his sisters, Phyllis Meiner and Eileen Dresner; and two grandchildren.

Her son served in the Israel Defense Forces and her daughter volunteered at a kibbutz in Israel. They produce a documentary called “The Rabbi and the Reverend”, about their father’s role in the civil rights movement and his relationship with Dr. King.

Rabbi Dresner was an early supporter of Soviet Jewry, opposed the war in Vietnam, and supported the rights of the poor, women, immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, homosexuals and lesbians. He served as chairman of the Israeli Civil Rights and Peace Education Fund (now Partners for Progressive Israel) and promoted a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.

He was honored by President Barack Obama at the White House on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which he attended. If he remained optimistic about race relations, said NPR“We have a long way to go.”

He retired as a rabbi in 1996 but never ceased to be a public citizen. His last public demonstration, in Trenton, NJ, was on January 20, 2017, the day President Donald J. Trump was sworn in. Rabbi Dresner was 87 at the time.

“A few years ago,” Avi Dresner said, “when I called my dad for one of our bi-weekly phone conversations, I asked him how he was doing, and he said, ‘Well, I don’t. haven’t lost my sense of justice. outrage, so I guess I’m fine.

“I think that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him,” his son added.

Last month, in an interview with WCBS-TV in New York, Rabbi Dresner said, “I want to be remembered as someone who not only tried to keep the Jewish faith, but also invoked the Jewish doctrine of the Talmud, which call it ‘tikkun olam’ — fix the world — and I hope I’ve done a little bit to make the world a little better.