By Anya Bochman
Of the many Jewish leaders who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, Rabbi Israel Dresner has the particular distinction of being “the most arrested rabbi in America.” One of the three rabbis who had a close relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dresner was the first rabbi arrested in 1961 at an interfaith clergy freedom ride and went on to have a distinguished career in social activism.
Dresner, of Wayne, served the congregation of Temple Beth Tikvah (TBT) in Wayne for 25 years. On Sunday, March 31, the congregation held a buffet lunch catered by The Kosher Nosh of Glen Rock to honor Dresner on his “Five times Chai” birthday. The number 18 is associated in Judaism with the concept of “chai,” or “life,” so that five times the amount signifies the rabbi emeritus’ 90th birthday.
A gathering of the rabbi’s former congregants, friends, family and colleagues, the event featured testimonials and presentations honoring Dresner’s life and work, while the catering offered Jewish staples such as potato latkes and noodle kugel.
Dresner became rabbi at TBT in the early 1970s, coming in as the congregation was reeling from the untimely death of Rabbi Shai Shacknai. It was at Dresner’s suggestion that the temple began its annual Rabbi Shai Shacknai lecture series. Recent guest lecturers include David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish committee, who spoke about challenges to world Jewry in 2017.
Upon his retirement in 1995, Dresner was appointed Rabbi Emeritus of TBT. As the temple’s website describes him, Dresner “was and continues to be instrumental in transmitting the beauty of our heritage and in teaching Jewish values to children and adults alike, with an emphasis on social justice.”
Temple Beth Tikvah’s current rabbi, Meeka Simerly, expressed her admiration for the rabbi emeritus.
“He has been most wonderful – so gracious, so loving, so supportive of female rabbis, who are still relatively new in the field,” Simerly stated. “I have cultivated a lovely relationship with him. My husband regards him as a father he never had.”
Describing a man who is “quirky,” “sweet,” and has a “very interesting sense of humor – he cracks himself up,” Simerly also expounded on Dresner’s humility and inspiring social activism record.
“I feel very proud to be in the presence of someone who marched shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King, Jr., who was part of that moment in history,” said Simerly.
Dresner was born on the Lower East Side of New York City on April 22, 1929 – making his March birthday celebration a month early. He grew up in Brooklyn; his father owned a delicatessen and as a teenager, Dresner spent a number of years with the Labor Zionist youth group Habonim Dror. He experienced his first brush with social activism – and civil disobedience – with Habonim Dror, after he and several other members were arrested while protesting the British government’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to Mandate Palestine.
Dresner went on to study at Brooklyn College and the University of Chicago, receiving a BA and MA in International Relations.
He spent 1951 and 1952 working at a newly formed kibbutz in the Negev Desert, followed by two years of enlistment in the United States Army.
Dresner became ordained as a Reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College, and spent the next 12 years as the spiritual leader of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield.
During his tenure there, Dresner took part in some of his most vital civil rights work. In 1961, Dresner joined a group of clergymen known as the “Interfaith Riders,” made up of 14 ministers and four rabbis. The group rode a bus from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee, Fla., to protest racial segregation throughout the South.
It was in Tallahassee that Dresner was first arrested; he and nine other clergymen decided to test whether they would be served in the airport’s segregated restaurant. After the waiters there called the police, the clergymen were arrested for unlawful assembly and sent to the city jail. Their arrest made national headlines, with the group becoming known as the “Tallahassee Ten.”
Over all, Dresner joined what became a total of 436 riders on more than 60 rides throughout the South. Approximately 25 percent of the Freedom Riders were Jewish, with clergy being an important voice for change within the movement.
And although many of the rides ended in riots and arrests, they were successful in effecting change, forcing the Kennedy administration to enforce anti-segregation laws that had been on the books for years, but were virtually ignored in the South.
It is this documented progress that Simerly takes comfort in.
“We can all learn from his presence, the attempts to make something wrong right,” Simerly said. “We can all grow from it.”
Dresner’s relationship with King is something Simerly also regards admirably; Dresner first met the famed civil rights activist when he visited him in jail in Albany, Ga., in 1962. King spoke twice to Dresner’s congregation in Springfield. According to a speech that Dresner gave at Temple Bnai Keshet in Montclair last year, King had recognized the alignment between civil rights chants and Yiddish songs that speak of enslavement.
Their relationship continued when King asked Dresner and others to organize a group of clergymen to help desegregate a town in Georgia. Within weeks, the group had rounded up 75 ministers and rabbis, all of whom were arrested.
Two years later, King was imprisoned again, and once more sought out Dresner’s help in a letter asking him to organize clergymen to demonstrate against segregation sites in St. Augustine, Fla. Again, Dresner and 16 other rabbis were arrested, which was the largest number of rabbis arrested in America.
Although Dresner’s close relationship with King fueled his protest work against segregation, he later extended his activism into Jewish causes. He was arrested in the 1970s for marching on behalf of the refuseniks, perhaps cementing his status as “the most arrested rabbi in America.”
Arrests aside, the rabbi’s work throughout the decades has brought him various accolades, including an honor by President Barack Obama at the White House on the evening before the 50-year anniversary celebration of the March on Washington.
Despite the distinction, Simerly pointed out that one of Dresner’s most inspiring qualities is his humility.
“His modesty is just inspiring,” Simerly said. “He lives very frugally and doesn’t ask for much, but people will do anything they can to help him.”
Since the early-1980s, Dresner has been an outspoken critics of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government. Though the Reform rabbi has an obvious affinity for the country, where he spent time on a kibbutz and had gotten married, he is wary of what he deems to be “self-destructive” policies.
As part of his work of fostering peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Dresner has served as president of the Education Fund for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace, and has twice been elected a delegate and an alternate to the World Zionist Congress.
Dresner has most recently visited Israel in October and November 2013; he has been the leader of Partners for Progressive Israel, an American Zionist organization for peace, justice, pluralism, and democracy, for 25 years, serving as its president for three years in the 1990s. Additionally, Dresner has been a member of the organization J Street since its founding.
Although Dresner grew up learning Yiddish in an Orthdox yeshiva, he raised his children – a son and daughter – to be fluent in Hebrew. His son is a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces while his daughter was a volunteer in Kibbutz Yotvata and married a member of the kibbutz.
Part of Dresner’s continuing activism is his “Tikkun Olam” lecture series, now in its eighth year. Named after the Jewish religious concept of “improving the world,” the lectures aim to spotlight speakers doing important work in a variety of fields. Every year, the rabbi emeritus selects a speaker to come to TBT, choosing participants based on their efforts to make the world a better place.
This year’s lecture took place shortly before Dresner’s 90th birthday celebration, on March 29. The guest speaker was Dr. Philip N. Eisner, physicist and global warming expert.
Despite his distinguished resume, Simerly describes Dresner as “one of the most humble people, not driven at all by ego.” His reputation in the community inspires a sort of veneration, leading people to go out of their way to help the rabbi emeritus on the rare occasions he does ask for help. Simerly recalled a recent incident where Dresner needed assistance to attend a funeral; the congregants immediately set up an email list to accommodate his request.
Reflecting on her relationship with Dresner, Simerly finds inspiration in the hope his work instilled.
“[His activism] shows that with a lot of hard work and dedication, any wrong can be righted,” Simerly commented. “This is why I love America so much – the democracy is set up so that when something isn’t right, with work and persistence it can be fixed. And [Dresner’s] civil rights work demonstrated that.”