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Israel Dresner, rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King, dies at 92

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Rabbi Israel Dresner's synagogue, Temple Sha'arey Shalom, in Springfield, N.J., on Jan. 18, 1963. Dresner became close to King when he was an activist for civil rights in the 1960s. [Avi Dresner]
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Rabbi Israel Dresner's synagogue, Temple Sha'arey Shalom, in Springfield, N.J., on Jan. 18, 1963. Dresner became close to King when he was an activist for civil rights in the 1960s.

The funeral for a New Jersey man on Sunday comes at a most poignant moment for his family, as it coincides with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Rabbi Israel "Sy" Dresner was one of the earliest Freedom Riders in the 1960s and was close with King.

Dresner died Thursday of cancer at the age of 92.

Dresner was arrested four times in the early '60s during the time he spent as a Freedom Rider. He used to leave his home in northern New Jersey, sometimes driving all night long, to join the nonviolent protests against segregation in the South.

In 1961, he traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., and was arrested and jailed after he and a group of Blacks and whites tried to integrate an airport restaurant. He was later the named petitioner in a legal case challenging the arrest that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While Dresner was behind bars in 1964, King sent him a telegram, expressing gratitude for his "heroism."

"It is your valiant act that touches the conscience of Americans of good will," King wrote. "Your example is a judgement and an inspiration to each of us."

Another arrest came in 1964 in St. Augustine, Fla., when Dresner and 15 other rabbis wrote a letter from behind bars explaining that they came because as Jews, they "remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler's crematoria," and because "silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time."

"He was the kind of guy who believed you've got to show up," says Jimmy Richardson, a documentarian and longtime friend of Dresner. "It's one thing to stand in the street and raise your fist. It's another thing when they arrest you in a state where they want to kill you. [Dresner] was the kind of guy who couldn't just stand by."

His activism was driven by his faith

"My parents made it clear that I had certain obligations as a Jew," Dresner told NPR last month. He said he was compelled by the Jewish experience, from being slaves in biblical times in Egypt, to the Holocaust, where he says most of his father's family was killed. He knew all too well, Dresner said, "what hatred can lead to."

Dresner said his activism was also driven by the Jewish religious teachings he was raised on, at home and at the Orthodox yeshiva he attended as a child in Brooklyn. He cited the Torah concept of tikkun olam, which means to repair the world.

"You have to leave it better than when you found it," Dresner explained. "And I've tried."

Dresner first met King in 1962, when King was jailed in Albany, Ga., and they shook hands through the jail cell bars. Before they started to talk, Dresner recalled, King knocked on the wall of his cell, signaling to the young men in the adjacent cell that King needed their help to make sure his plans would not be overheard. They immediately filled the jail with a loud chorus of freedom songs.

After King was released, Dresner followed him around to church services, rallies and meetings — Dresner described it in his diary at the time as "a real honest to goodness revolution" led by the "negro freedom fighters." He says he bonded during those days with King, especially when they were trapped together in a house surrounded by a mob of the white supremacist members of the White Citizens' Council.

It would be the start of a prolific and close collaboration, with Dresner increasingly involved with organizing, fundraising and showing up for protests in the South.

A Black-Jewish alliance

Clarence Jones, a former King adviser, attorney and speechwriter, recalls Dresner as one of the ones "who got the soul force."

"He was inspired by the power of the call," said Jones. And the progress made during the civil rights era "simply would not have happened" without the support of rabbis and other Jews like him, who turned out in disproportionate numbers to support the movement.

Dresner was frequently called on to help recruit more support. A June 1964 letter from King to Dresner begins with "Dear Sy," Dresner's nickname. Dictating from the St. Augustine jail, King asked Dresner to find more rabbis willing to be arrested.

"Some 30 or so rabbis would make a tremendous impact on this community and the nation," King wrote. He added, "it would do much to buttress our efforts."

The white clergy, along with other whites, were important to King's larger strategy, to broaden what was seen as a "Southern" or a "Black problem" into one that was seen as an "American problem."

"Most Americans in 1961 wanted to continue to evade, avoid, ignore what we call quote the 'race problem,' " Dresner recalled in an interview with the PBS history series American Experience. "In that sense, the Freedom Rides were brilliant, I think, in getting a problem that was swept under the rug up and over, so that you couldn't avoid it or evade it."

In 1965, on " Turnaround Tuesday" in Selma, Dresner delivered the prayer at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, at King's behest. The two also shared pulpits several times, each traveling to preach to the other's congregation.

After King's death, Dresner continued to be an active voice for civil rights, and for the Black-Jewish alliance itself, which began to fray. The bond between Black activists and Jews, whom King had called the "most consistent and trusted ally in the struggle for civil rights," was strained over the years by everything from internal factions, identity politics, white privilege, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dresner was also an early champion for civil rights for all people of color, as well as women, LGBTQ and disabled Americans, and he was as staunch in his support for Palestinians as he was a Zionist.

But Dresner maintained a special regard for the Black-Jewish alliance, and hoped to help shore it up by continuing to speak at Black churches, Jewish synagogues, and schools — especially every Martin Luther King Jr. day.

Like Dresner, Jones, the former King adviser, sees the Black-Jewish alliance as just as much of a moral and a pragmatic imperative today, as racism and antisemitism are mounting and voting rights are once again on the line.

"Let's not shoot selves in the foot," says Jones. "We desperately need each other to turn this country around."

Dresner left the world with a call for justice

Shortly after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Dresner drew up a short "bucket list" of things he wanted to do, including visiting an old favorite New York deli for a pastrami on rye sandwich one last time, and going to pay his last respects at his parents' and grandparents' graves with his son, Avi, and daughter, Tamar.

At the cemetery, Dresner spoke about being appreciative that he lived to be 92, longer than he expected. But he was also wistful that what King famously called the "arc of the moral universe" was also longer than expected.

"We have a long way to go," Dresner told NPR that day. "I feel a little guilty leaving the present world, where the forces of hatred and discrimination seem to be on the rise, and democracy seems to be in danger."

But ever the optimist, Dresner left the cemetery recalling a story King often told, relating to how long that "arc" can be.

"Dr. King quoted an elderly Black [man] who had just voted for the first time," Dresner said. When asked what he thought about his new status as a legal voter, the man said: "I ain't what I wanna be. I ain't what I should be. I ain't what I'm gonna be. But thank God, I ain't what I was."

Dresner's efforts to help bend that long arc a little closer toward justice will be memorialized on his gravestone with a verse from the Torah: "Justice, justice, shall you pursue."

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