Israel Kugler, a leader of teachers’ and Jewish labor organizations, died October 1 in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 90.
Kugler was president of the United Federation of College Teachers during the turbulent 1960s, and he won a reputation as an outspoken advocate for teachers’ rights. In 1965, the teachers’ union, under Kugler’s leadership, supported 31 professors who were dismissed from St. John’s University, a Catholic college in Queens, allegedly for demanding greater academic freedom. With Kugler’s encouragement, a number of St. John’s faculty members went on strike for a year and a half.
In 1972, Kugler helped create the Professional Staff Congress, which today represents 20,000 faculty and staff members at the City University of New York.
Kugler is survived by his wife, Helen; his sons, Philip of Silver Spring, Md., and Daniel of Washington; a sister, Frances Brill, who lives in Queens, and two grandsons.
“He was a moral, spiritual and political compass,” said Philip Kugler in an interview with the Forward. “In addition to Little League and Boy Scouts, my father also brought me to march in New York City Labor Day parades, to picket lines, on a union bus to the historic 1963 March on Washington for civil rights.”
Philip Kugler followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Israel Kugler was born in Brooklyn on June 13, 1917, to Eastern European immigrant parents. He served in the Navy during World War II and was educated at City College and at New York University. In addition to his work as an organizer, he was a professor of social science in the CUNY system and author of the book “From Ladies to Women: The Organized Struggle for Women’s Rights in the Reconstruction Era.”
Kugler’s parents were involved in the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, which is the national Jewish labor organization, and Kugler’s own children were sent to Workmen’s Circle shules (part-time Yiddish schools). After he retired from teaching and organizing in 1980, Kugler was elected president of the Workmen’s Circle. He held the office for two terms, until 1984.
Kugler was also active in other progressive Jewish organizations, serving as an officer of the Jewish Labor Committee and of the Forward Association, the not-for-profit holding company of this newspaper.
“His strength was his passion for social justice, for labor,” said Robert Kaplan, director emeritus of the Workmen’s Circle. “He was a persistent fighter in every place he was. He always wanted to make sure that we stepped forward for labor, for the ordinary person.”