Rabbi Israel S. Dresner

Rabbi Emeritus Israel S. Dresner

April 22, 1929 – January 13, 2022

May his memory forever be a blessing

Rabbi Israel S. Dresner departed this world on Thursday, January 13th, having left it better than the one he was born into.  He was ninety-two, eight months, and twenty-two days old – something he would want you to know as someone for whom facts and accuracy mattered a great deal.

He was born to immigrant parents from Czarist-Russian Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – arguably his three favorite words in the English language – on April 22, 1929 in a Lower East Side tenement building.  He was educated at Eitz Chaim Yeshiva in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Herzliah Academy, and New Utrecht High School, from which he graduated at the age of 16 and enrolled in Brooklyn College.  

At 18, in 1947, he went to the Habonim Institute to become an organizer for the Labor Zionist Youth Movement.  That same year he was arrested for the first time outside the British Empire Building in Rockefeller Center protesting the British turning back the ship Exodus 47, which was full of Holocaust survivors, from the shores of British Mandate Palestine.  

He was sent by Habonim as an organizer to Chicago, where he was admitted to the University of Chicago.  One of his roommates there was the future stage and film Director Mike Nichols.  Dresner earned his B.A. and his M.A. in International Relations from Chicago and, in 1951, hitchhiked through ten European countries on his way to Israel.  He remembers an exchange with the desk employee at a German youth hostel who expressed surprise that there were any “Juden” left.

Dresner worked on Kibbutz Urim in the Northern Negev until he received a telegram from his mother telling him he had been drafted.  He returned to serve in the U.S. Army as a Buck Private from 1952 to 1954, during the Korean War.  While stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, Dresner became a chaplain’s assistant and, after his honorable discharge, enrolled at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Rabbinical Seminary, in Manhattan in 1954.  He served as student Rabbi to the legendary Rabbi Jerome Malino in Danbury, CT and also at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, NJ from 1958 to 1960.  In 1960, he became Sha’arey Shalom’s first full-time Rabbi.

In 1961, Dresner was one of the first two Rabbis arrested during the Civil Rights Movement in the first Interfaith Clergy Freedom Ride.  That arrest led to the first Freedom Rider case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, Dresner Et. Al. V. Tallahassee.  The following year, Rabbi Dresner met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when King was in jail in Albany, Georgia.  They shook hands through the bars of Dr. King’s cell, and a friendship was born that would last for the remainder of Dr. King’s all too short life.

Rabbi Dresner often described himself as following Dr. King around “like a puppy dog” for four days through the counties of rural Southwest Georgia, watching him preach at various churches and preside over meetings with local Civil Rights leaders.  During one such meeting, the home of Dr. W.G. Anderson, the head of the Albany Movement, was surrounded by a mob of the White Citizens Council, which was basically the Ku Klux Klan without the hoods.  Dresner recalled “practically urinating in his pants” in contrast to Dr. King, who was “cool as a cucumber.”

To the background of vile epithets and threats from the mob outside, Dr. King engaged Rabbi Dresner in the longest tete-a-tete they would ever have.  In the course of that long night, King told Rabbi Dresner that he had recently attended a Passover Seder and shared that what had impressed him most was that Jews didn’t try to pretend they were all the descendants of King David and Solomon.  They celebrated the fact that their ancestors were slaves, and Dr. King told Dresner that “we Negroes could learn a lesson from that.”  Rabbi Dresner gently reminded Dr. King that slavery was not ancient History for Jews, who had been slaves in the concentration and death camps of Europe less than twenty years prior to that evening.

Dr. King asked Rabbi Dresner to help organize what became – and is still today – the largest mass arrest of clergy (75) in U.S. History in Albany, Georgia on August 28, 1962 during which Dresner was again arrested.  In 1963, Dr. King spoke at Rabbi Dresner’s synagogue in Springfield, NJ for the first time, after the two had attended the National Conference on Race and Religion together in Chicago at which Rabbi Dresner was the head of the N.J. delegation.  Dresner was also one of the national organizers of the March On Washington in 1963 and watched Dr. King deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech about fifty feet away on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Dresner was honored for his role in that, and in the Civil Rights Movement more broadly, by President Obama at the White House at the fiftieth anniversary of the March in 2013.  Dresner also met with Presidents Johnson, Carter and Clinton.

In 1964, Dr. King made Dresner a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Board, an unprecedented honor for a Rabbi.  That same year, he asked Dresner to organize the largest mass arrest and incarceration of Rabbis in American History, in St. Augustine, Florida.  The “Why We Went” letter  the Rabbis wrote from their sweltering overcrowded cell has been described by Andrew Young as the Jewish equivalent of Dr. King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.”

In 1965, after the brutal events of Bloody Sunday of the Selma March, Dr. King called upon Rabbi Dresner to deliver the prayer at the foot of the Pettus Bridge on what came to be known as Turnaround Tuesday, a moment immortalized in Time Magazine.  Rabbi Dresner was also the one who invited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to accompany King on the final day of the march, which Dresner also completed with them.  That same year, Dr. King’s second in command, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, named Dresner his West Hunter Street Baptist Church’s “Man of the Year.”

In 1966, Dr. King spoke at Dresner’s Springfield congregation again and, in 1967, one year to the day of Dr. King’s assassination, Dresner was on the altar with him at Riverside Church in Manhattan, when King delivered his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech.  It was likely on that occasion that Dr. King inscribed his most recent book Where Do We Go From Here to Rabbi Dresner with the words “To my good Friend Sy Dresner For whom I have great respect and admiration.”

After Dr. King’s tragic murder, Rabbi Dresner continued the legacy of his fallen friend and, while the populations may have changed from African-Americans to women to the disabled to Asian and LGBTQ Americans, Rabbi Dresner’s passion for social justice never changed, nor did it stop at America’s borders.  His last arrest, in 1980, occurred protesting Apartheid outside the South African Consulate in New York City, and he was an outspoken advocate for Soviet Jewry, visiting Refuseniks there several times.  His last public protest was with his daughter Tamar on the day of Trump’s inauguration.

Rabbi Dresner was also a proud lifelong Zionist, who had been to Israel over forty times and had met with nine Israeli Prime Ministers.  He was an active member of J Street, a former President of Meretz USA and Partners for Progressive Israel, and one of the earliest doves on the occupied territories.  Rabbi Dresner was an outspoken critic of Israeli policies there, who died fervently believing that a two-state solution is still possible with the creation of a Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace.  He was an eternal optimist, who always saw the glass as half full, which also came in handy as a Mets fan.  

Rabbi Dresner’s stances on Civil Rights, on Israel and on a host of other issues, from Vietnam to school prayer, were never popular – and he received boxes of hate mail to prove it – but he always stood on the side of right even when it was lonely and dangerous to do so, and he always strove to live by the words of Deuteronomy “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue.” 

Perhaps most importantly of all, in addition to being survived by his sisters Phyllis Meiner and Eileen Dresner, Rabbi Dresner was the proud Aba of Tamar (Mark) and Avi (Natasha) Dresner and the naches-schepping Zayda of Lev and Sasha Dresner.  May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration.

If you wish to make a donation in Rabbi Dresner’s memory, you may do so to any one or more of the following organizations and causes: Temple Beth Tikvah Rabbi Israel Dresner Tikkun Olam Fund; NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Partners For Progressive Israel; “The Rabbi & The Reverend” documentary his children are producing about his Civil Rights work with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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