Thoughts on the Passing of Albert Vorspan

I never met Albert Vorspan.  I have never had a personal or institutional connection to the Reform movement, which he served with distinction for many years.  Yet when I read recently that he had passed away at the age of 95, I could not help but feel a certain wistful nostalgia.

My one connection with Vorspan was a book — more precisely, a loose-leaf-style textbook entitled Jewish Values and Social Crisis: A Casebook for Social Action. Vorspan wrote that book in 1968, with revisions in 1971.  The small Conservative synagogue in which I grew up used it as a textbook in its supplemental Hebrew HIgh School, presumably because the Conservative movement did not publish a social action textbook of comparable quality.  I attended that Hebrew High School, and we used that text book.

I can recall discussions during the early 1970’s, in Hebrew High School classes and elsewhere, about the various issues raised by Vorspan’s book.  Its explanatory narrative was supplemented by excerpted sources, fictitious scenarios, suggestions for further discussions and lists of additional resources. I read Vorspan’s book as a teenager and have used it occasionally for reference since then.  I had not looked at  it for a number of years, but when I read of his death I felt the urge to peruse it again.  It had sat for years in a bookcase at my home — appropriately, next to the three volumes of The Jewish Catalogue, an iconic work of the same period.

Skimming through Vorspan’s book brought me back to the American Jewish community of half a century ago. It captured the state of American Jewry during a volatile period in both American and modern Jewish history.  The book’s sixteen chapters addressed a wide range of social, political, and religious issues that were controversial at the time.  As I flipped through it again, I was struck by the jarring juxtaposition of issues that are no longer applicable with others that, with perhaps some changes of language and a few updates, remain relevant today.

To take an obvious example, it is clear from the book’s first chapter how much the world has changed.  Entitled “War, Peace and Conscience,” that chapter dealt with the Vietnam War, the draft, and the status of conscientious objectors.  It began with a scenario depicting three college students discussing how to respond to the draft — a burning issue for high school students in 1968, when the book was written.  By the time I graduated from high school in 1975, the draft had been discontinued, and those who graduated later on cannot easily appreciate the extent to which the possibility of mandatory army service dominated the thoughts of teenagers during that period.  There are still American soldiers abroad, some fighting in wars that are controversial.  But most American Jews don’t know anybody fighting in those wars, and their children cannot be sent to fight unless they volunteer.  Without the personal stake that the draft created, even the least popular war cannot inspire the anti-war passion of the Vietnam era.

The second and third chapters, by contrast, entitled “Racial Justice” and “Poverty” respectively, seem eerily contemporary.  Sure, they use outdated language and seem slightly out of focus.  Substantively, however, the issues they address seem all too familiar.  It’s a reminder that America hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

It’s hardly surprising that some parts of Vorspan’s book seem more relevant and contemporary than others.  The chapter on Soviet Jewry, written in the early days of the Soviet Jewry movement, before that movement become the most powerful unifying cause of American Jewry, is mostly of historical interest.  (It did, however, provide an opportunity for me to reread Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar”, which I first encountered through Vorspan’s book.)  Some may be tempted to see parallels with the current controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, but no one who lived through any part of the cold war can mistake Vladimir Putin’s Russia for the Soviet Union of Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev.

Perhaps most jarring of all, the chapter entitled “Anti-Semitism” began with a passage that could almost literally have been included in one of any number of op-ed pieces that I have read over the last few months:

Today, for the first time since the end of World War II, American Jews are seriously worried about the extent and danger of anti-Semitism in America.  Only a few short years ago, the American Jewish community regarded itself as both secure and mature; we boasted that anti-Semitism was at a low, virtually insignificant level.  But today some Jews in America feel embattled.

Throughout the book, Vorspan tried to explain multiple sides of the various issues addressed, but he did not hesitate to make his own opinion clear.  Indeed, the first sentence of the author’s preface reads:

 The author of this book confesses outright: this is a biased book.

When it came to anti-Semitism, Vorspan analyzed the factors feeding the community’s fears, but it’s clear that he thought those fears exaggerated.  Like many progressives today, moreover, he thought the only anti-Semitism worth worrying about emanated from the political right.  He was particularly reluctant, as are many progressives today, to call out anti-Semitism in what is today called the African-American community.  In that era, the reluctance, though ill-advised, was more understandable; Vorspan wrote in the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, in a time when Dr. King was still the most familiar model of leadership in the African-American community.  Today, when an unapologetic anti-Semite like Louis Farrakhan can attract a small but not insignificant following, such reluctance is harder to justify.

Israel does not occupy a large segment of Vorspan’s  book — somewhat surprising considering how large a role it played in the consciousness of Jews at the time he wrote.  The book was first published in 1968, the year after the Six Day War.  American Jews were filled with relief at Israel’s survival and took pride in its victory.  Yet the chapter on Israel and Zionism consists of only two elements: an exchange of letters between two fictitious American Jewish college students concerning the desire of one to make aliyah, and a reprint of an article on the Orthodox monopoly on official Judaism in the Jewish state.

On reflection, I think I know why Israel’s place in Vorspan’s book was so small.  The book was intended to stimulate discussion and thus by its nature, focused on controversy.  In the period in which Vorspan wrote and revised his book  — the years between the wars of 1967 and 1973 — Israel was at its least controversial, and its support among American Jews was at its zenith.  The only discussion-provocative Israel related issues Vorspan could think of, it appears, were the imperative of aliyah and the relation of religion and state.  Those issues are still with us, of course, but alas so are many others.  Israel is still a source of pride, but it is no longer non-controversial.

Much has changed — in the world, in America and in the Jewish community — in the half century since Albert Vorspan wrote this textbook, and much has not.  Reading parts of the book today, after a lapse of decades, made me nostalgic for the community as it was then, grateful for the things that have improved, saddened by the problems unaddressed and cautiously optimistic for the future.  Most of all, it made me acutely aware of the responsibility of each of us to make the world as it is a little more like the world as it should be.  Vorspan was not primarily a writer but an activist.  He was one of the founders of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and by all accounts was instrumental in the development of the contemporary Reform movement’s focus on social action.  That focus has improved the lives of many thousands, if not millions, of people.  For that even those of us who differed from him religiously and sometimes disagreed with him politically should remember him with respect and gratitude.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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