On January 13, 2022, a giant of American Jewry, Rabbi Israel Seymour Dresner, died. He was 92.
Rabbi Dresner was an icon of Jewish support for the civil rights movement during times when that meant putting his life at risk. He was a learned and dedicated rabbi. But to those of us who worked closely with him in his support of progressive Zionism and those who knew him personally, he was always “Sy.” We knew him through our work with nonprofit agencies and on committees and boards; he always acted with loving and refreshing informality.
He wasn’t Rabbi Dresner to us. He always was Sy.
Sy was born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1929 and grew up in Brooklyn. He was nurtured in a Yiddish-speaking, richly Jewish environment, and was educated in an Orthodox day school. Like many of his generation, he was excited by the Zionist movement and the renewal of the Jewish presence in its historical homeland. At 13, he joined the Zionist youth movement Habonim (known today as Habonim Dror) and later worked on Kibbutz Urim in 1951 and 1952, during the early years of Israel’s statehood.
While he was living in Israel, Sy was sent a draft notice that arrived at his parents’ home. His kibbutz colleagues wanted him to stay in Israel, but his family back in the States implored him to return, so he did. He was posted at Fort Harrison, Indiana. That base has since been closed, but during World War II and the Korean War it was a major training center. One day, when he was hitchhiking back to the base, a Reform rabbi who was an Army chaplain there gave him a ride. They chatted in Yiddish, and the chaplain asked Sy to become his assistant. It was that accidental meeting, and the relationship that grew from it, that ultimately led Sy to become a rabbi.
After serving in the army for two years, Sy, who already had a graduate degree in international relations, began rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College. When he was ordained, he served as assistant to Rabbi Jerome Malino, who led the United Jewish Center of Danbury, Connecticut, for 66 years. The UJC was unusual in that it was home to Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews; it would hold services for each group separately, in a way that’s unlikely to happen today, and Rabbi Malino was there for everyone. He also was known for his advocacy of nonviolence.
After Connecticut, Sy moved to New Jersey. In September 1958, he was installed as the first full-time rabbi of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield. After that, he became the rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, retiring after 25 years there to become its rabbi emeritus.
But for Rabbi Dresner, being Jewish was much more than standing behind a pulpit. His Jewishness was wrapped in justice. And outside the wall of his synagogue, justice needed him. For those who did not live through it, it is difficult to describe the depths of racial prejudice and discrimination in the United States during those years, particularly in the South. In many places, public facilities, housing, and schools were legally segregated, with inferior provisions for Black people. But pressure for change was building. In 1959, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, a dynamic young minister, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, organized a community-wide bus boycott. Ultimately, that struggle, grounded in non-violent protest and action, resulted in the desegregation of public buses in Montgomery. That success inspired a movement.
Believing that the struggle for dignity, freedom, and human rights was a Jewish struggle embracing all peoples, Rabbi Dresner became one of the early Freedom Riders. In 1961, he joined groups of white and Black volunteers demanding non-segregated accommodation in buses, airlines, and restaurants, challenging both the law and even more fundamentally, peoples’ attitudes. His first arrest for his civil rights work occurred that year.
The work was dangerous. Segregationist mobs would gather and threaten. Sometimes more than threaten. In 1964, three young civil rights volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were abducted and murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
In the summer of 1962, Reverend King called his clergy contacts for help during a very difficult campaign in Albany, Georgia. Rabbi Dresner answered the call. When the home at which he and Dr. King were staying was surrounded by a violent mob, Sy thought they were going to be killed, but he said that Dr. King never flinched, and eventually the mob dispersed. When Dr. King was arrested in Albany, Sy visited him in prison. He and Reverend King forged a close bond of friendship.
Rabbi Dresner was with Reverend King in Birmingham, Alabama where, under arrest, Dr. King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Later that year, when his Freedom Ride through the South reached Tallahassee, Florida, Sy and fellow riders went to the city airport to press for desegregation at the airport restaurant. By the time they arrived, they found the segregated restaurant closed. Sy and most of his “Tallahassee Ten” cancelled their flights and rebooked, remaining in the airport until it shut for the night. When they returned the next day, the restaurant was still closed, so they cancelled their flight again, rebooked, and waited again. On their third day, the group was ordered to disburse, and Sy and other protestors were arrested. Rabbi Dresner wouldn’t post bond or pay a fine, an action that Dr. King would note in a telegram thanking him. The suit against the arrests, recorded as Israel Dresner et. al., petitioners v. City of Tallahassee Florida, raised important civil rights issues that reached the Supreme Court. In the end, the people who were arrested were either acquitted or had charges dropped.
In 1964, in St. Augustine, Florida, Sy organized 16 rabbis to participate in what became the largest civil disobedience arrest of rabbis in U.S. history. He was arrested and served short times in jail four times in his struggle for civil rights. Media reports called him “America’s most arrested rabbi.”
One evening in February 1965, non-violent civil rights protest marchers in Marion, Alabama were attacked viciously by police. During the assault Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot while protecting his mother; he was taken to the nearby Selma hospital where he would die eight days later. In response, Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference called for a march for voting rights from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama’s capital. When their march reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, marchers were brutally beaten by police; that day came to be known as Bloody Sunday. Sy joined Dr. King for the second march. When they reached the foot of the bridge, lined with state troopers, Dr. King asked Sy to give a prayer before turning the march back. Another clergy volunteer, the Reverend James Reed, would be murdered the following day. A third march eventually would proceed with protection of the Alabama National Guard, under federal command ordered by President Lyndon Johnson. Ultimately, the Selma campaign served a crucial role in building support for the Voting Rights Act.
The next year, Dr. King spoke from the bimah at Sha’arey Shalom.
Rabbi Dresner’s commitment to justice was not confined to America’s civil rights movement. He was an early advocate of freedom for Soviet Jews, beginning in 1966. He remained active in support of refusniks and an advocate for the rights of Soviet Jews for decades.
He also believed America’s involvement in Vietnam was a mistake and was a vocal activist against the war.
Rabbi Dresner, a lifelong Zionist, was excited by Israel’s creation in 1948. He enjoyed the revival of the Hebrew language, making it a language spoken in his home and raising his son, Avi, and daughter, Tamar, to be fluent in it. He was deeply relieved when Israel defeated the Arab armies arrayed against it in June 1967, but was soon disturbed by the emerging settler movement seeking permanent Israeli control over territories taken in the 1967 War. He spoke out against the settler movement publicly as early as 1968. It’s not that he didn’t understand the deep historical connection that Jews had to the Judean Hills and Shomron — but he could not imagine a Jewish state that would allow a double standard for its inhabitants. The thought that Israel would make life in the territories for Palestinians into what it had been like for Blacks in the Jim Crow South was unacceptable to him. He understood the corrosive character of the emerging occupation and the threat that West Bank settlement movement ultimately would pose to the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and even more importantly to the Jewish and democratic character of Israel.
With the memory of the assassination of his friend Martin Luther King sitting on one of his shoulders and the Torah sitting on the other, he became active in Breira in the 1970s. Breira — the word means “alternative” —was an American Jewish organization that supported a peace process with Palestinians based on mutual recognition of national rights. Breira represented an answer to the claim that peace with Palestinians was impossible and therefore there was no alternative — ein breira —to the occupation. Breira included prominent figures in the American Reform movement, intellectuals, prominent leaders within organized American Jewry, secular Jewish leftists, and leaders of Americans for Progressive Israel, a group connected to the left-Zionist Israeli political party, Mapam. At the time, the idea of a peace process with Palestinians was threatening not only to many in the Jewish community but also to the Nixon administration, in office at the time. Eventually, some of Breira’s ideas, characterized as extremist and outside the communal consensus in the 1970s, became mainstream U.S. and Israeli government policy in the 1990s.
Sy became more vocal about the occupation in the 1980s and was sharply critical of Netanyahu government policies in the early 1990s. These he criticized not only with respect to the occupation but also what he saw as the erosion of democracy, religious pluralism, and civil rights within Israel’s borders. He helped to organize the Education Fund for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace, a group closely associated with Shulamit Aloni, the longtime Israeli feminist, civil rights, and human rights activist, and founder of the Ratz political party. In the early 1990s, the Israeli political parties Ratz and Mapam merged to create the social democratic, civil rights, and peace-oriented party Meretz. In the United States, Americans for a Progressive Israel, the Education Fund, and Friends of Ratz merged to create what ultimately was known as Partners for Progressive Israel.
Rabbi Dresner was the president of the merged group from 1996 to 1998, and sat on its board for the rest of his life. He understood that he could express his abiding love for Israel in actions and words that affirmed the Israel he desired while criticizing the shortcomings he saw. He didn’t feel that it would be possible to affirm Jewish peoplehood through the denial of Palestinian peoplehood. He could not see how the Jewish state could be a sound foundation of a creative Jewish future while it was mired in a corrosive occupation or discriminating against non-Jewish citizens. And he was not afraid to say so.
Jewish religious experience is rich, and different people take different things from law, commentary, discourse, legend, and faith. To Rabbi Dresner, Jewishness was not in the world to come but in the here and now. It was bound up with Jewish peoplehood but was not restricted to it. Tikun olam, repairing the world, did not mean turning in but reaching out. For Rabbi Dresner, tikun olam was not an afterthought; it was an obligation at the core of what Jewishness is really about. That was at the heart of Rabbi Dresner’s life, a life that we honor and will remember.
Dr. Mark Gold of Teaneck holds a Ph.D. in economics from NYU. He is on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel, a member organization of the American Zionist Movement and an affiliate of the World Union of Meretz.
Hiam Simon of Englewood is the past chief operating officer of Ameinu, the leading progressive Zionist membership organization in the United States. He lived in Israel for many years, where he was the dean of students at what is now the Alexander Muss High School, and he served in the IDF as a noncommissioned officer in the artillery.