Al Vorspan was a Jewish giant of justice

The story Al Vorspan told me fifty years ago, and how it taught me to hear the real music.

Albert Vorspan
Photo: URJ/RAC

For the entirety of my “woke” Jewish life — the past fifty years — one man has been a constant presence, a ubiquitous influence, an eternal light that hung over the sacred ark of Jewish conscience.

I am referring to Al Vorspan, former senior vice president  of the Union of Reform Judaism, former director of its commission on social action, and the foremost voice of social justice in the Reform movement, who has died at the age of 95.

Let me tell you about the first time that I met him, and how he shaped my world view.

It was exactly fifty summers ago, at the UAHC (now URJ) Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts — the incubator of countless Jewish lives, careers, and assorted vocations. 

I was a fifteen year old kid, and our unit head, Larry Lasker, had invited Al to speak to our group of about a hundred kids.

Larry introduced him with these words: “The man who should have been my congressman” (referring to Al’s unsuccessful attempt at a political career).

Al laughed him off, sat down, and started talking to us about social justice, about racial justice, about the war in VietNam. This was all very heady, and it was even more poignant because Robert Kennedy had been dead barely a year, and his spirit was still very much alive. 

Then, he told us a story — a story that I have since told countless times. 

But, more about that story later. 

Al Vorspan was a lion of social justice. It was his singular obsession. For two generations no one, with the exception of Rabbi David Saperstein, had more influence in shaping the social action agenda of the Reform movement. We are blessed that Rabbi Saperstein’s successor, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, has followed in those hallowed footsteps. 

When historians write the definitive history of American Reform Judaism in our time, they will note that Reform Judaism’s social justice credo was the creation of several men, all of the same age, who worked together and crafted a movement.

Who were these men?

  • Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz, of blessed memory, the Reform movement’s master ideologue, whose theology and pedagogy informed our social justice stances.
  • Rabbi Balfour Brickner, of blessed memory, fiery and never in doubt.
  • Rabbi Eugene Lipman, of blessed memory, who went from a military chaplaincy in which he helped liberate the camps, to a rabbinate in which he liberated the conscience and the soul.
  • Rabbi Alexander Schindler, who was the president of the UAHC, whose influence spanned the movements.
  • Rabbi Richard Hirsch, who is still with us. He was the founding director of the Religious Action Center. When he made aliyah to Israel, he packed that passion in his duffel bag.

That there are no women on this list only testifies to the changes that Reform Judaism helped introduce. Women would go on to become leaders in Reform social justice — including the late Annette Daum, the late Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, and (may she live to 120 years) Barbara Weinstein, the associate director of the Religious Action Center and director of the Commission on Social Action.

Long before anyone knew how to pronounce tikkun olam, these leaders created classic American Jewish liberalism. There was never a moment when I was not proud and humbled to sit in their presence.

I will never forget the time we spent together in the former Soviet Union, along with David Saperstein, Richard Agler, Al’s beloved Shirley of blessed memory, and the late Mary Travers. He sat with Soviet refuseniks, in the darkest time of Soviet repression, and hold their hands and listen to them and give them comfort and hope.

The last time that I saw Al was at Gene Borowitz’s ninetieth birthday party at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Al stood up, and in a voice unaffected by his own advancing age, proceeded to tell the students that Gene was responsible for the social justice agenda of the Reform movement.

Rabbi Borowitz was already quite weak. Nevertheless, he thundered: “Al Vorspan is a liar!” The future leaders of the Reform movement looked on in awe as two nonagenarians argued that the other was, in fact, the bonafide alte zeyde of Reform social justice work.

Al Vorpan loved to tell the story of how he went to Saint Augustine, Florida, to march for civil rights, along with a bunch of rabbis. They all wound up in a jail cell, and the rabbis all proceeded to practice what would become the Friday night sermons they would deliver after their release. 

Al rattled the bars of the cell, and yelled for the jailer.

“You are violating my civil rights!” he screamed.

“How?” the jailer asked. 

“You have me cooped up in here with a bunch of rabbis who are working on their sermons. This is police brutality!”

Al was funny. Hysterically funny, actually. Yes, he cajoled, prodded, goaded, pushed, pulled, but always with humor.

Oh, about that story that Al Vorspan told us — fifty summers ago.

Once upon a time, there was a small Jewish band in Eastern Europe. Their bass player died, and they needed to find a replacement.

They auditioned a new bass player. He seemed acceptable, except that he kept on playing his own melody. The other musicians hoped that he would improve.

It was the day of their great concert. The band played its music, and the bassist — well, let’s just say that he played his own music. He played his own melody. It was terribly discordant. The crowds rioted at the raucous music. The bassist fled from the mayhem, never to be seen again.

As the musicians recouped themselves on a nearby hill, suddenly the heavens opened. The band members saw a heavenly orchestra of angels, and they were playing a musical piece.

What was the melody that they were playing?

It was the bassist’s melody.

He had heard that heavenly music — all along.

As I said, I have told and re-told that story many times in the last half century. It was a quintessential Al Vorspan story.

Because it was the Al Vorspan story. His story was the story of a man who heard supernal tunes, and did not hesitate to give them voice.

Al has earned his rest.

We have not.

Now, it’s up to us to pick up where he left off.

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