The first time Rabbi Israel Dresner marched on Washington was in August of 1963, at the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
At the time, Dresner was the religious leader at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield and a veteran of the civil rights movement. He had been arrested twice for challenging racial segregation in the deep South.
Earlier this month, he returned to the nation’s capital as one of several hundred movement veterans honored at the White House on the occasion of the march’s 50th anniversary. Dresner’s son, Avi, came as his guest.
When the 84-year-old rabbi had a chance to say a few words to Barack Obama as he shook the president’s hand, it was not to speak about racism in America.
“I took the opportunity to tell him, ‘Please do everything in your power to see to it that peace is made between the Israelis and the Palestinians,’” Dresner said. “Peace is not only desirable but it is possible, even though a lot of people have given up on its possibility.
“The president said to me, ‘You still have your passion.’”
Then Avi Dresner told Obama, “My father has always tried to speak truth to power.”
It is a practice the rabbi pursued as a Freedom Rider in June 1961. In a challenge to racial segregation on interstate bus routes, he joined an interracial group of 10 clergymen on a ride from the North to Tallahassee, Fla.
“We served a brief time in jail, about 30 hours, until we were bailed out,” he told NJ Jewish News. Another rabbi, the late Martin Friedman of Paterson, was also arrested, along with five white and three black Protestant ministers.
Dresner’s second arrest came a year later in Albany, Ga., where he first met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Dr. King was in jail at the time and I shook his hand through the bars. I loved Dr. King. In Albany, Ga., I followed him around like a little puppy dog,” Dresner said.
The rabbi would be arrested two more times in 1964 during desegregation battles in Florida, in St. Augustine and Tallahassee.
His jail terms came during his 13 years at Temple Sha’arey Shalom, where he twice hosted King.
Dresner told NJJN his congregants responded to his activism “like everybody else. There were people who thought it was terrific. There were people who thought it was awful. And there were most people who said, ‘We don’t want to get involved.’”
Each time Dresner returned home from jail, he said, the board at his synagogue would take up a resolution “to commend the rabbi for living up to the highest ideals of prophetic Judaism. They voted for it all four times, but the votes were never unanimous. Jews don’t always agree on anything.”
But, he noted, “Jews contributed more to the civil rights movement than any other white ethnic group. We were 50 percent of the Freedom Riders, and we provided 50 percent of all the lawyers who came south to defend people in the civil rights movement.”
Even during the height of his activism, he said, he made sure not to “get arrested during bar mitzva season. The worst thing you can do as a rabbi is to miss a kid’s bar mitzva.”
During the 1963 march, Dresner recalled finding it “exhilarating to see 250,000 people — about 100,000 of them white people, and I suspect a majority of the white people were Jewish.”
At the White House 50 years later, as he waited to meet the president, Dresner reconnected with old friends from the movement.
They included Andrew Young, a close aide to King who later became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the mayor of Atlanta; John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia; and Julian Bond, a former chair of the NAACP.
The following day, as he stood near the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march, Dresner said, “it was much different. In 1963 there was no talk of gays and lesbians. No woman spoke, and that was a disgrace. The diversity this time among both the speakers and the audience was incredible. People spoke about LGBT rights and immigration reform.”
Despite the progress he has witnessed over the decades, Dresner told NJJN, “We still have a long way to go.”