The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel Dresner, rabbi who fought for civil rights, dies at 92

Rabbi Israel S. Dresner, right, at his New Jersey synagogue with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. (Courtesy of Avi Dresner)

Israel S. Dresner, a New Jersey rabbi who worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, was first arrested for civil disobedience in 1947, at age 18, when he joined a protest in New York City in support of the Jewish refugees aboard the Exodus, the ship turned away from the shores of the British mandate of Palestine.

He joined his final public protest at age 87, according to his family, the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated.

In seven decades of activism, and especially during his work in the 1960s on behalf of racial equality, Rabbi Dresner became — as he put it — the most arrested rabbi in America. As a Freedom Rider in 1961 protesting the segregation of interstate transit, with his presence at events including the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, and with his success recruiting other rabbis and White clergy to the civil rights cause, he provided a “witness,” as King told him in a letter, that “did much to raise the right moral and religious questions” of their time.

Rabbi Dresner died Jan. 13 at a senior living community in Wayne, N.J. He was 92 and had metastatic colon cancer, said his son, Avi Dresner.

Rabbi Dresner was one of many Jewish leaders and activists, among them the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who played meaningful roles in the civil rights movement.

“From 1961 to 1965, whenever there was a civil rights crisis, if there was a rabbi there you could pretty much bet it was Si Dresner,” Raymond O. Arsenault, an emeritus professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida and the author of a history of the Freedom Riders, said in an interview, using the name by which Rabbi Dresner was known among friends.

Rabbi Dresner, who joined his first Freedom Ride on the invitation of a friend from the rabbinate, recalled to NPR that he would drive through the night from his home in New Jersey to participate in the interracial, interfaith demonstrations in the South.

His activism was inspired by Jewish teachings, which convinced him, he told the St. Augustine Record of Florida, “that racism and slavery in America was wrong, and segregation in America was wrong.”

On June 16, 1961, Rabbi Dresner was among the Freedom Riders arrested during a sit-in organized to integrate a restaurant at the Tallahassee airport. Convicted with nine others of unlawful assembly, he became known as one of the “Tallahassee Ten” and helped challenge their convictions as a petitioner in the case Dresner v. Tallahassee, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.

Rabbi Dresner met King in 1962 at a jail in Albany, Ga., where the civil rights leader had been imprisoned for civil disobedience. Their first handshake, Rabbi Dresner recalled, was through the bars of King’s cell. To ensure that guards could not listen in on their conversation, Rabbi Dresner told NPR, King tapped on the wall of his cell, signaling other jailed activists to begin singing.

“ ‘Oh, Freedom,’ ” Rabbi Dresner said. “I remember they [sang] ‘Oh, Freedom.’ ”

When King was released, Rabbi Dresner accompanied him across Georgia, listening to him preach, observing what the rabbi described in a journal entry as a “real honest-to-goodness revolution” and committing himself even more fully to King’s cause. The two men met one evening at the home of William G. Anderson, an African American physician and leader of civil rights activists who formed what was known as the Albany Movement. When members of the segregationist White Citizens’ Council surrounded the house, Rabbi Dresner feared that the mob would torch the house, he recalled years later to the Record of Bergen County, N.J.

“It was encouraging to me,” Anderson said in an interview, to see rabbis and other White activists joining African Americans in the fight for racial equality. It showed, he said, that “this is not a battle that is just being fought by Blacks.”

Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Dresner helped organize a protest in Albany where 75 religious leaders from across the country — Jewish, Protestant and Catholic — were arrested. The event later prompted King to write the letter to Rabbi Dresner in which he thanked the rabbi for his “marvelous witness.”

On King’s request, Rabbi Dresner organized a group of more than 15 rabbis who traveled to St. Augustine in 1964 to protest segregation.

“We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria,” the group wrote in an open letter after their arrest. “We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”

King preached several times at Rabbi Dresner’s synagogue in New Jersey before he was assassinated in 1968, and Rabbi Dresner spoke at churches including the Baptist congregation in Atlanta led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a close confidant of King’s.

“Your sermon was most profound and in the [noble] tradition of the prophets,” Abernathy, who died in 1990, wrote in a letter provided by the Dresner family. “You will never know fully what your presence meant to us as a church and to me personally as a friend.”

Israel Seymour Dresner — known to friends as Sy and later Si — was born in a tenement building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on April 22, 1929, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father owned a deli near Ebbets Field that often catered to players for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rabbi Dresner was politically active from his early days, joining the Labor Zionist youth movement. He attended a yeshiva in New York before enrolling at a public high school. His later studies at the University of Chicago culminated in a master’s degree in international relations in 1950.

Rabbi Dresner worked in Israel on a kibbutz in the Negev desert until being drafted into the U.S. Army. He served stateside during the Korean War as a chaplain’s assistant, an experience that inspired him to become a rabbi. After studying at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, he was ordained in 1961.

Rabbi Dresner was active in the movements to oppose the Vietnam War, to aid Soviet Jews and in particular the “refuseniks” denied permission to immigrate to Israel, and to end the segregationist apartheid regime in South Africa. He was arrested for the last time in 1980, according to his family, protesting outside the South African consulate in New York.

Rabbi Dresner’s marriage to Toby Silverman ended in divorce. Survivors include two children, Avi Dresner of Pittsfield, Mass., and Tamar Dresner of Lords Valley, Pa.; two sisters; and two grandchildren.

Interviewed shortly before his death, when he knew his cancer was terminal, Rabbi Dresner told NPR that “we have a long way to go.”

“I feel a little guilty,” he said, “leaving the present world where the forces of hatred and discrimination seem to be on the rise and democracy seems to be in danger.”