In 1964, Rabbi Al Vorspan 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, Florida. He would later write of the experience:
“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.”
Rabbi Vorspan lived that message without pause for his entire life. His death this week marks the loss of a prophetic voice in the Reform Movement whose influence touched generations and transformed the world. Rabbi Vorspan was a pivotal force behind the creation of the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC and through his work as a leader of the URJ. Our Educator, Rachel Mersky Woda, grew up with Rabbi Vorspan and shares this memory,
“No is a lovely word.” was written on a note pinned up near the phone on Al Vorspan’s desk at 838 Fifth Avenue when he worked for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was written by his assistant as an attempt to remind him that he was not obligated to agree to every meeting, speaking engagement and conference he was asked to be a part of. The problem was that he was never around to heed the message, because he could never say no. It was his mission to engage as many people in the struggle, whether it was for civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War, fighting for the freedom of Soviet Jews or the many other social action issues we faced over time. He did this with great joy and incredible humor. His was very earnest and yet never took himself seriously.
Rabbi Vorspan’s prophetic vision emboldened the Reform Movement to become a force for justice across the nation. In the face of challenges and criticism, he would respond with words that inspire us still: “Behold the turtle, it only makes progress when it sticks out its neck.”
Read more remembrances of Rabbi Vorspan here .