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Remembering Al Vorspan

Parashat Ki Tissa 5779

Al Vorspan has been described as gadol ha-dor, a giant of his generation, for his courageousness, for his unflagging optimism, for his indomitable spirit. He was called a modern day prophet because of his moral clarity, his willingness to say what was right, even if it was unpopular, and always with a smile or a joke to soften the challenge or rebuke.

These sorts of descriptions are justified, because that is how we perceived Al. He filled those roles for us. But scratch beneath the surface, and what you will find is what energized Al more than glory and fame–Al wanted to leave this world a touch more perfect, a touch more just, than it was the day before.

For Al, everything started and stopped with family. First it was about the unit of Shirley and Al, Al and Shirley. Together for 70 years, they balanced one another, supported one another, brought one another along on their adventures, and created an incredible family together. The spirit of the Vorspan clan is strong. That was the major message at Shirley’s funeral just several months ago, and it was a through-line on Wednesday at his funeral. Al was someone who thrived off of his close relationships with his children, his nieces and nephews, with his grandchildren, with his great-grandchildren. In Chuck Vorspan’s eulogy about his dad, he described his parents as the sun, each child and family member being a planet caught in their magnetic and gravitational pull. For those of us who knew Al, who even had one conversation with him, that magnetic pull was real.

Al made family the center, but he also trained that gravitational force on others. He did it through his storytelling, and through his curiosity in others. The first time I met Al was at the Hebrew Union College. Al taught a one semester course that was required for all students. It was called Social Action and the Rabbinate. He co-taught the course with Rabbi Jerry Davidson, Rabbi Emeritus of Beth El in Great Neck, another one of the tremendous champions of justice from our Reform Movement. We lovingly referred to that class as “War Stories with Uncle Al,” because while Al focused his attention on motivating us to champion for justice, he did so by recalling many of the great fights in which he and other Jewish social justice leaders were caught up, through the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam efforts, the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, finding equal footing for men and women in the workplace, equal access for Americans with disabilities, and all of the other myriad of causes that Al had taken on in his 50 years plus at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Like any good obsessive type-A person would do, I have saved all of my papers from Rabbinical School, because you never know when you might want to refer back to them. In my final paper for Al, which focused on a Jewish critique of the atrocities at Abu Graib and other US Military prisons, I asked, “How are we guided by our instincts and by our intellect to look toward the future, with the hope that what we do is right?… How do we make decisions in the face of uncertainty?” Al highlighted those questions and wrote beside them, “I’ve been asking myself the same thing for a long time. When you figure it out, let me know.” The truth is, Al knew the answer to those questions, because he lived by his own answer to them: You follow the voices of tradition; you hear the prophetic call. You hear the clear charge to let justice flow like water. You cloth the naked, you visit the sick, you provide for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. You helpt to unshakle others from bigotry and hatred. You take care of the vulnerable among us, because you know what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. You follow Micah’s teaching, הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־יְהוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ “He has told you–as a human being–what is good and what God requires from you, only to act justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Al grasped onto this banner and led us all forward.

And he took that message and spread it around the Reform Movement for 60-some-odd years. Toward the beginning of his time at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Al went on tour, traveling from congregation to congregation with Rabbi Gene Lipman z”l, making the case for social action committees. It is hard to believe that there was a time where social action was novel. If all politics are local, Al understood that real difference, real justice, was also local. And he took our synagogues, and helped us crash through stained glass windows, to see the world as it really was outside of our sanctuaries, to bring fresh air into our dusty halls, and to know and understand that it was our religious and spiritual obligation to perfect the world. In 2013, the Pew Portrait on American Jewish life reported that 56% of American Jews today believe that working for justice and equality is what it means to be Jewish. That’s only outranked by 69% who say that being Jewish is about living a moral life, and 73% who say that remembering the Holocaust is paramount. Al and the other Jewish champions of justice (people like Jane Evans, Leibel Fine, Rabbi Gene Lipman, Rabbi Everett Gendler, Rabbi Jack Stern, Rabbi Dick Hirsch, Rabbi Sy Dresner, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Kivvie Kaplan and others) were the ones who put justice on the map of contemporary Jewish life. They did that.

Today, when we look at the Jewish social justice world, we certainly have the Religious Action Center. And we have the “boutique social justice organization,” places like Bend the Arc and T’ruah. But for Al and his generation, social action and social justice was centered with the synagogue. Al was a synagogue-guy. We certainly knew that here at Hevreh. Hevreh was an important spiritual center for Al and for Shirley, just as their home in Hillsdale was a nucleus for their family. Even in their later years, when it was challenging, Al wanted to be here for the holidays. And it was always a joy to see he and his children come in at some point during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, with his signature embrodiered kippah and a smile on his face. Whenever we would speak he would tell me how much he missed being able to come to Hevreh on a regular basis, being able to take part in things. He so wished he could be here more often, and often said how sorry he was about that.

When I first arrived at Hevreh, I made it a point to spend some time with Al. I happened to be going through New Paltz for a meeting one day, and so we arranged to meet at his apartment. When I arrived at the door, Al was waiting to greet me. He gave me a tour of the building, and as we walked, he told me about how he had just played Haman in the community Purim Schpiel. He played Haman as a Trump-like character, who at that time was just beginning to make noise as a presidential candidate in the primaries. “America knows better,” Al said. Over the last few years, seeing the empowerment of racist voices, the rise in anti-semitic rhetoric, xenophobia and other forms of bigotry, Al struggled between his internal, eternal optimist and his realism that sounded like momentary pessimism. During that visit to his house, Al regaled me with stories, we ate hamentashen, and he told me jokes, making me laugh out the crumbs as I tried to keep it all together. As I left that afternoon, he asked me, “Neil, you must not have read my books? Don’t you know that rabbis don’t make house calls?” He was referencing a book he published in the 1960’s called “My Rabbi Doesn’t Make House Calls.” From then on, anytime I talked with Al, he would laugh and remind me, “Hey, who knew! Apparently my rabbi does house calls!” Even as Al couldn’t be at Hevreh, we stayed with him. He always was grateful for that.

A giant of social justice for the Jewish community. The prophet who gave us moral clarity through challenging times. That is the way we are describing Al. At the last URJ Biennial, Rabbi David Saperstein and Al held a session where they reflected on Al’s work and impact, the world as it is today, and what they see for our future. Al was not sure if was going to be worth the trip to be there for that session. He did not want to be away from Shirley. He said to me and to Rabbi Gordon, “Why go? No one will show up!” Over 300 people were at that session. At the end of the talk, Al had the last word. He noted that it would probably be his last public appearance, and so for that reason he wanted to tell a story he had never told before. He spoke about his experience in WWII in the Pacific, when his boat was under attack. He talked about being afraid, but that a sense of duty would override his fear. How, when in that fight, he found one thing to do to help, and then another, and another, all to protect his life and the lives of his fellow sailors. Al went on to say that we are sailors on a ship under attack, that we are all–as Americans–currently living in a crisis, a crisis for democratic society, facing challenges that we as a country have never faced. And just as he was a scared 21-year-old kid on that ship, we all need to realize that this is our time to gather, our time to rally. As American Jews today we are blessed, and we should thank God for our blessings. We as Jews of faith and conscience now know how to mobilize a moral response to the crisis. Al forcefully argued that America needs us (that Jewish moral voice), and we need America, because we’re Jews. Jews are not spectators. We are not observers. We are do-ers. Al knew how to bring a group together, to unify us with a lofty vision, and to then mobilize us to perfect the world.

He was a man who held fast to idealism, to a vision of what America can be, what our community could be as partners in creating that vision. He was a man who lived his life with his feet on the ground, his eyes open to those around him, and a soaring heart and mind. His favorite moments were not in finding glory or success, but in having made a real connection with others, and in having made a difference in others lives. Since Al’s death last week, I have heard from many in our congregation about how Al touched your life.

Before we close with song in tribute to Al, what I’d like to do now is ask if anyone here has an Al story you’d like to share:

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