The loudest voice in the Jewish Reform movement is now, sadly, silent.
Al Vorspan, who was jailed with several other Reform rabbis in 1964 in Augustine, Fla., after responding to a clarion call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to join the civil rights protest, died on Feb. 16 in upstate New Paltz. The former Hewlett resident was 95.
A Temple Sinai of Long Island in Lawrence member, Vorspan was remembered by fellow congregant Greta Kantrowitz. “He was a giant, he not only did so much but marched with Martin Luther King and was jailed many times,” she said. “He had an incredible sense of humor.”
Kantrowitz recalled the story that when Vorspan was jailed in Florida with the rabbis, he realized he was the only one not writing a sermon. “He rattled the bars and said he wanted out because they were infringing on his civil rights,” she said. Temple Sinai merged with Temple Emanu-El of Lynbrook to form Temple Am Echad, also in Lynbrook in 2009.
Vorspan opposed the Vietnam War and advocated for Soviet Jewry, and propelled Reform Jews to fight against social injustice. His opposition to the Vietnam War was so vehement he was called “a vociferous minority” by then U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd, who believed Vorspan clashed with mainstream Jewish opinion.
He began his work in 1953, as he helped to inspire the establishment of social action committees across North America and encouraged Reform Jewish synagogues to collaborate with their communities to assist in resolving global problems. He played a critical role in founding the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in 1961, and the group remains key to the Reform Movement’s social justice work in North America.
“Known for his ‘ever-nudging-to boldness,’” Rabbi David Saperstein stated in a news release from the Union for Reform Judaism, “[he was] a mentor, friend, and inspiration to all who knew him, Al Vorspan was, to many, the personification of Reform Judaism’s social justice efforts.”
Saperstein formerly lead the Temple Am Echad congregation.
Born in St. Paul on Feb. 12, 1924, Vorspan served on a U.S. Navy destroyer during World War II. He applied that combative spirit to become a long-time leader of Reform Judaism. He served as senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the forerunner organization of the Union of Reform Judaism. He retired in 1993. Vorspan was also was director emeritus of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.
“He was an uplifting and focused man who made a big impact on social justice issues,” said Rabbi Mark Zedek, rabbi emeritus of Emanuel Congregation in Chicago.
Vorspan wrote several books, including “Justice and Judaism, Searching the Prophets for Values;” “Tough Choices: Jewish Perspectives on Social Justice” and “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices for our Times,” standards in Jewish religious education.
In an online article for the Central Conference of North American Rabbis, Rabbi Mark Goldman called Vorspan a “visionary” and wrote: “My congregant, Al Vorspan, taught me the merit of ‘chutzpah’ in molding better days.”
His brother, Max Vorspan, was an American rabbi, professor, historian and administrator at the American Jewish University, and a leader in the Los Angeles Jewish community. Max died 2002. His nephew, Rabbi David Vorspan, is the founding rabbi of Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, Calif., and founding rabbi of de Toledo High School in West Hills, also in Calif.
Vorspan’s wife, Shirley, predeceased him last year. He is survived by four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Matthew Ferremi contributed to this story.