January 14, 2022

The Reb and the Rev

Jill Hershorin Archivist and Curator, Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest NJ

We are sad to report that Rabbi Israel Dresner passed away on January 13, 2022. This is a beautiful tribute to his life’s work. May his memory be for a blessing.

In 1961, the country was seeing great change politically and socially. The civil rights movement was picking up momentum and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was organizing sit-ins, marches, and rallies to highlight the injustices in our country. At the time, Temple Sha’arey Shalom of Springfield’s first full-time rabbi, Israel “Sy” Dresner – a 32-year-old who already had an impressive history of activism and speaking up against racism, which was spawned from the death of his family during the Holocaust – met Rev. King.

The men instantly became friends. They were only three months apart in age and saw the inequality during Jim Crow era south as an affront to humanity. When Dr. King came to speak at nearby Temple Sharey Tefilo with his lecture titled: “The Impact of Religion on Community Living,” the congregation could clearly see how King’s faith drove his activism.

A month after King’s visit, a colleague asked Dresner to participate with other clergy in the first interfaith Freedom Ride, and he agreed.

The group headed south on a Greyhound bus in June 1961. They had no idea what lay ahead. They zig-zagged across the southern states, attempting to integrate as many whites-only establishments as possible. That meant arrests and death threats, sleepless nights, and fear. Rabbi Dresner proudly considers himself “the most arrested Rabbi in the country.”

By his second visit to the area, King had already been established as a national figure in the civil rights movement. Dr. King was invited to be the guest speaker at the regular Shabbat evening service at Dresner’s Temple Sha’arey Shalom on Friday, January 18, 1963. This was the first time he spoke during services at a synagogue. The sanctuary was packed, and hundreds had to be turned away as the doors shut to the synagogue.

King’s speech that evening was titled “The Religious Roots of the Movement to Win Negro Freedom in America Today.” His message traced the history of segregation and the part being played by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the “attempt to eliminate the evil,” as King was quoted at the time. Dr. King emphasized the importance of non-violence in achieving results and stated, “…that we will not fight to retaliate. We are against both black or white supremacy.” (Dr. King’s Shabbat Sermon in Springfield)

Rabbi Dresner became one of King’s most trusted interfaith colleagues and is one of the heroes of the movement. In a recent interview with CBS New York, Dresner said, “Well, I want to be remembered as somebody who not only tried to keep the Jewish faith… But also, to invoke the Jewish doctrine from the Talmud, which is called ‘tikkun olam,’ repairing the world, and I hope that I made a little bit of a contribution to making the world a little better place.”