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Al Vorspan: ‘Shrill’ and proud

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In May 1966, Sen. Thomas Dodd took to the Senate floor to denounce an article in American Judaism — as the magazine of what is now the Union of Reform Judaism was then known.

The article, calling for an end to the still-young war in Vietnam, argued that “Vietnam is not comparable to Munich and Hitler.”

Such anti-war views represented only “a vociferous minority,” Dodd claimed, calling support for the war by the Jewish War Veterans organization more reflective of religious opinion.

Now 88 years old, Albert Vorspan, the author of the article, remembers that era well.

“During Vietnam, we had a large, shrill voice and shook up the Jewish community,” he says.

He’s not apologetic about that.

What he does regret is that a decade ago, during the run-up to war in Iraq, the Reform movement “mostly went along.”

One difference may be that in 1966, Vorspan was one of the vocal leaders of the Reform movement. Hired in 1953 to spearhead and direct the Commission on Social Action of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — as the umbrella organization of Reform congregations was then known — he remained a formidable presence in the group for nearly 40 years.

But by 2002 he had been emeritus – serving on the commission’s board, but not its director – for a decade.

Vorspan will speak Friday night at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, presenting the first annual Tikkun Olam lecture in honor of the congregation’s rabbi emeritus, Israel Dresner.

Vorspan speaks of Dresner fondly.

“We’ve been in jail together. We’ve demonstrated together,” says Vorspan.

Vorspan says that Dresner was arrested many more times — while demonstrating in the Civil Rights movement — than he was.

“Dresner was even more immersed than I. He was the most arrested rabbi, the closest to Martin Luther King. I was none of those things.”

Yet Vorspan’s role in the movement was critical.

“When I came to the Union, they said, what do you want to do? I said, ‘I want to go down south, I want to meet King, I want to find where our congregations fit into this. I want to see what our congregations can do to help.’”

“In the 1950s, [and] especially in the ‘60s, I knew we were involved in the greatest moral struggle in American history, probably since the Civil War. This would determine whether America would be a racist country or not. It was a mammoth fight.”

Vorspan brought to the struggle a commitment to equality forged while growing up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in an era when “we were the capital of anti-Semitism in America. It was both racist and anti-Semitic. You’d have to Google it to believe it. Jews were probably treated as badly or worse than blacks. There were public schools you could belong to but not the Lions Club. Not the Automobile Club. Whole parts of both cities were Judenrein. Jews couldn’t live there.

“There were very few voices speaking out against it. We thought that was the way things were.

“I knew in the end that what’s going to crack open Minnesota is the Civil Rights revolution, transforming America and knocking down these walls. That’s how Jews would live like full Americans. Now Minnesota is one of the most civilized, cosmopolitan communities in the country.”

His sense of justice was heightened by his experience in the Navy during World War II.

“My ship, like every ship in the Navy, discriminated against its black members,” he said.

Vorspan peppers his conversation with Yiddishisms. He grew up “unhappy Conservative.” His older brother Max was a happy Conservative Jew, ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and serving as a senior administrator at the movement’s University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

“He was a big influence on me,” Vorspan recalls. “I had a very good Jewish education, but I found it boring and uninspiring. It didn’t turn me on. Reform was very appealing to me. I was a potential Reform Jew from the time I was a kid.”

Vorspan’s path to becoming a leader of Reform Judaism began when, after serving in the Navy and studying at New York University and the New School for Social Research, he was hired to join the six-person staff of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs).

From there, he was hired to start the Commission on Social Action.

“Their openness to creating a social justice program and taking the risks of doing it appealed to me,” he recalls.

The idea for the commission, he says, was that of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then ten years into a 30-year tenure at the helm of the Reform congregational body.

“He always thought it was a mistake for the Reform rabbinic group, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to be the ones so identified with social justice.

“Eisendrath used to say, ‘Why the hell is it always the rabbis? Where are the laymen? Laymen have the same obligations as rabbis.’”

Vorspan is clear on what he achieved at the Commission on Social Action, and the Religious Action Center that it spawned.

The battle for Civil Rights “would not have been won if not for Jews. Jewish-black solidarity was the engine that made it possible. Without us, there would be no NAACP. The president of the NAACP was a Jew, a member of our commission.

“In the end — this is something you probably do not know — the great Civil Rights laws of the United States of America were drafted on the conference table of the newly established RAC of UAHC. It was black lawyers and Jewish lawyers who drafted those bills on that table.”

If the Civil Rights struggle was his greatest success, and advocacy against the Vietnam War brought him the highest-profile criticism, “the biggest lumps I’ve ever had in the Jewish community was not race relations; the toughest stuff was when I opened my mouth saying many of the things Peter Beinart is saying [criticizing Israeli policies in the west bank]. I said them in The New York Times and I had my head handed to me.”

His criticisms appeared in a May 1988 New York Times Magazine article entitled “Soul Searching,” containing diary entries of his wrestling with what was happening in Israel with the outbreak of the first Intifada several months before. In particular, he criticized the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for uncritically standing behind the Israeli government, saying it “seems to be putting a kosher stamp on everything — shootings, deportations, excessive force.”

“I was shocked by the fierceness and the vehemence of the response. Back then we had a JDL that was physically threatening. The Israeli embassy invited me to say my piece, and I respect them for that. I said there was no way to end the intifada and violence without a political settlement. It was such a radical statement then, and now it’s a truism.”

Vorspan says that despite being the largest denomination of American Judaism, the Reform movement — and its leftward tilt — has had little impact on the Presidents Conference.

“Then and now we were kind of the tail. We don’t wag the dog. And even though Eric Yoffe was gutsy as president of the Union and raised hell on all of these issues, it didn’t ever change the Presidents Conference. The Presidents Conference is what it is, which is a polite echo of Israeli policy.”

“I regret I didn’t blow my top about Iraq, that I allowed myself to get befuddled, to be so gullible, after being so vehement on Vietnam. I’m embarrassed about that.

“On torture, we spoke up. Not as much as I would have liked, but compared to the rest of the Jewish community, it’s bravado. At some point a Jewish organization has to say that torture is beyond consideration. The question of whether you speak on the issue of torture and violations of civil liberties in the fight against terrorism — those are tough issues for the Jewish community, and most of the Jewish community has resolved the issue by ducking it.

“I’m angry that the Jewish community, instead of facing issues like guns and torture and economic injustice, wraps itself in the Israeli flag and takes out full-page ads. Everybody is a defender of the faith, and the faith is Israel.”

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