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Al Vorspan

If you want to know the history of the Religious Action Center it is best to start in 1953 when Al Vorspan convinced the then-president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath that, if organized and mobilized, the one million Reform Jews at the Union’s 600 congregations “could be a real force… could transform history.” And so the Commission on Social Action was created to guide and shape social action in our communities and in Washington, D.C. as a joint instrumentality of the Union and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. According to Al, Eisendrath was warned by some board members that the Union “couldn’t afford” to create the Commission; it might be targeted as a result of McCarthyism. However, Eisendrath believed that “McCarthyism was a monumental evil,” and that the Union  “couldn’t afford not to” create such a group. Eisendrath  “was a risk taker and he believed that the purpose of Judaism was to make the world better, that that was the whole point – all the rest is commentary,” Al says.

In a matter of years, Al managed to organize an incredible Commission that included lay leaders such as Arthur Goldberg (the eventual Secretary of Labor, UN Ambassador and Supreme Court Justice) and Howard Metzenbaum (the eventual Senator from Ohio).  “We felt a sense of history, a sense of calling,” Al says. “We thought that what we were doing was the most important thing in this country.” For nearly a decade, Al and his co-director Rabbi Eugene Lipman travelled across North America setting up social action committees in congregations and energizing people to take action on some of the most important issues of the time, including the boiling civil rights debate.

While the power of Reform Jews was steadily growing on the local level, it was clear to Al and other Union leaders that the this voice was not being projected into the halls of Congress and that a Capitol Hill presence would be necessary. According to Al, the fight to create the Religious Action Center “almost tore the Reform Movement apart.” However, after months of organizing and passionate debate, the RAC was voted into existence by a 10 to 1 margin at the 1961 Biennial in Washington, D.C. When the final vote tally came in, “I couldn’t talk to anybody,” Al recalls. “I had to go out in the parking lot of the hotel and I put my head against the hood of a car and I sobbed like a baby… It was a big moment in my life and a big moment for the Union.”

Al worked as the director of the Commission on Social Action at the Union for 40 years until he retired in 1993.  “The history of the Commission on Social Action and the history of the Union is that we stick our necks out when everyone else is hiding,” according to Al. “That was true with McCarthyism; that was true in the early days of civil rights; that was true of affirmative action; and that was true with Vietnam.”

“Behold the turtle,” Al says, “it only makes progress when it sticks out its neck.”