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Al Vorspan, z"l

 

Al Vorspan, who served as the vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC, now the Union for Reform Judaism) was a driving force behind the creation of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). He served as the director of the Commission on Social Action for nearly 40 years before his retirement in 1993. He died on February 17, 2019, at the age of 95.

Al was born on February 12, 1924 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He served in the US Navy from 1943-1946 before joining the National Jewish Community Relations Council (now Jewish Council on Public Affairs) and eventually the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) in 1953. Al served as director of the Commission of Social Action of Reform Judaism for over 40 years, during which time he helped establish the RAC. Key moments in his tenure include guiding a UAHC resolution opposing the Vietnam war (making the then-UAHC the first major Jewish organization to do so), his appointment as senior vice president by URJ President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, and the publishing of "Soul Searching," a contribution to the NYTimes Magazine focused on growing tensions in the Jewish community over the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Al also ran for Congress in 1968. 

When Al helped organize the Religious Action Center in the nation’s capital, he could not have imagined that some 70 years later, he’d be viewed by many as a giant of social justice – even as a modern Hebrew prophet.

Like the prophets Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, Al was not afraid to speak truth to power. Though he never claimed to be God’s spokesperson, Al felt commanded by the Torah’s ethical values and a love of humanity.

In 1964, Al was jailed with a group of Reform rabbis who responded to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to join in the Civil Rights protests in St. Augustine, FL. Al would later write, “We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. 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.”

An early opponent of the Vietnam War, Al did not protest as a pacifist – he had fought in the U.S. Navy during World War II – but as one who believed that U.S. involvement in Vietnam constituted an unjust war. Sen. Thomas J. Dodd, then a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security, rebuked Al for reflecting "a vociferous minority" rather than mainstream Jewish opinion.”

Though a lifelong Zionist, Al wrote in The New York Times Magazine during the first Palestinian intifada (1988): “Israelis now seem the oppressors, Palestinians the victims." In the face of a furious backlash, Al said, “Behold the turtle: It only makes progress when it sticks out its neck.”

The ancient prophets were not known for their humor, but Al loved to laugh. Whenever he heard a joke he liked, he’d scribble it on a scrap of paper and stuff it in his jacket pocket. Once he told a joke, he’d wait for a reaction, then laugh so hard he’d fold over, red-faced, until he could catch his breath.

If the Book of Prophets defined his life’s work, Song of Songs, with its images of lovers frolicking in a garden, defined the relationship he had with his wife of 72 years, Shirley, of blessed memory.  When Al was not traveling the proverbial train of tikkun olam (repairing the world), he would head for their country retreat, a restored mill house with a spring fed pond in Hillsdale, N.Y.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said of Al on the day of his death:

"Al blazed a trail of courage & conscience that so many of us have walked. Not since the biblical prophets Amos, Hosea, & Micah walked the earth have we been led by such an inspiring justice leader. Our Reform Movement & our world are bereft, for he cannot be replaced.”

 

Al Vorspan and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

If you want to know the history of the Religious Action Center, it is best to start in 1953, when Al first convinced Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), that the one million Reform Jews affiliated with the UAHC’s 600 congregations “could be a real force… could transform history” – if only there were someone to organize and mobilize them.

And thus the Commission on Social Action was created, operating as a joint instrumentality of the Union and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to guide and shape social action in Reform communities and in Washington, D.C.

As Al always told the story, some board members warned Rabbi Eisendrath that the Union “couldn’t afford” to create the Commission; they worried it might be a targeted for McCarthyism. Eisendrath, though, believed that “McCarthyism was a monumental evil” and that the Union “couldn’t afford not to” create such an organization. Al once said 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.”

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 said. “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 this vital faith 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.” After months of organizing and passionate debate, though, the RAC was voted into existence by a 10-to-1 margin at the 1961 UAHC Biennial in Washington, D.C.

When the final vote tally came in, “I couldn’t talk to anybody,” Al recalled. “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.”