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What a civil-rights rabbi taught me about dying with dignity — and living with purpose

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Rabbi Sy Dresner, a civil-rights pioneer with a photographic memory, was not afraid of dying. But he took his time.

When Dresner was told in November that his stage 4 colon cancer left him only weeks to live, he took a matter-of-fact approach. He asked his adult children to take him to a last Broadway show (“Book of Mormon”) and for a last meal at Katz’s Deli (pastrami on rye). He even helped pick out his own casket.

By late December, he was unconscious most of most days, with his daughter, Tamar, and son, Avi, sitting vigil by his side, ready with a glass of his beloved seltzer and a yarmulke, which he always put on to eat or drink.

When he was alert, he told them he was holding on to see the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. Then he moved the goalposts: he had to make it to Jan. 6, the anniversary of the Capitol riots, to see that our democracy had survived a full year.

When I visited Rabbi Dresner during what turned out to be his last extended cogent period, on Dec. 30, we joked about him pushing through to the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the friend and mentor he often said he “followed around like a puppy dog.” He came close, succumbing on Thursday evening after 92 years, eight months and 22 days of life framed by the values of tikkun olam, repairing a broken world.

“I never feared death,” he told me, recalling how during the first of his many civil-rights arrests, at a 1961 Freedom Ride, “I was a little scared but I was less scared than a lot of people in the group.” Instead, he said, “I’m afraid of things the average 9-year-old is not afraid of. I’m afraid of anything technical, anything where you have to push a button.

“I’ve lost all sorts of command of things,” he added, though his mind proved fertile over a 90-minute conversation about history, Jewish values and family. “I was never very good at anything mechanical, but now I can’t button my own shirt.”

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Rabbi Israel S. Dresner’s synagogue, Temple Sha’arey Shalom, in Springfield, N.J., at Friday evening services on January 18, 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Rabbi Israel S. Dresner’s synagogue, Temple Sha’arey Shalom, in Springfield, N.J., at Friday evening services on January 18, 1963. Courtesy of Avi Dresner

I was reminded of Dresner’s leadership in the Black-Jewish alliance while screening the documentary “Shared Legacies” for an event last month. When I reached out to Avi Dresner to ask about interviewing his dad, he said it would be difficult — he could hardly hear, and tended to wander off on long tangents — but also told me about Katz’s and the rest of the bucket list.

I helped him publish an essay that more than 100,000 people have read (so far) and that spawned an article in the New York Post, a piece on CBS News and an upcoming one on NPR.

As Avi kept me updated on the essay’s resonance and his dad’s decline, I asked to meet Rabbi Dresner, but it seemed too late — “your chances of catching him awake are slim to none,” Avi texted on Dec. 29. When he called the next night, I thought it would be news of the rabbi’s last breath. Instead, it was to summon me: Sy was up, eating soup and telling stories, probably for the last time.

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I sped over to Wayne, N.J., where Dresner had spent 25 years as rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah and now lived in a lovely assisted-living complex. His apartment was packed with photographs from Dr. King’s two visits to Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield, N.J., where Dresner presided for a dozen years, an overstuffed bookshelf featuring a full set of Encyclopedia Judaica, and a green handwritten “Shalom Zayda” card.

“My father was not a Forverts reader,” Rabbi Dresner said unapologetically as I pulled a kitchen stool over by his recliner. “He read the Tog. There were four Yiddish dailies when I grew up. Tog was the pro-Zionist one among the four.”

And so began an hour-and-a-half dissertation, peppered with Yiddish and Hebrew phrases, on the remarkable life of Israel Seymour Dresner.

Born on the Lower East Side to parents who immigrated from “the Czar’s Poland” (mom, at 7 in 1913) and the former Czechoslovakia (dad, at 22 in 1921). Raised in Brooklyn yeshivas and trained in the United States Army. Leader of men, witness to history. “This is the sharpest he’s been in eight years,” Avi said.

He told me about his Uncle Louie (Leibl), who ran Dresner’s Bar and Grill on York Avenue between 78th and 79th streets — “closer to 78th” — and gave his father, “who didn’t know a word of English,” his first job in America. He schooled me on immigration history — “in 1905, 150,00 Jews came — that’s a net figure.”

He spoke at great length and detail about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which his children joke are his “three favorite words in the English language,” about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940 reelection campaign against Wendell Willkie, about basic training at Fort Dix, about the Jewish communities of Paraguay and Ecuador.

“You know you have approximately 27 hours to live,” Avi gibed at one point, referring to dad’s then-focus on the ball-drop. “I’m inspired by how you choose to spend it.”

I asked how he had decided to become a rabbi. “Well, it was an accident,” he began.

Dresner, raised on the Zionist Tog and the Habonim youth movement, made aliyah in 1951 and was working on a new kibbutz. In 1952, during the Korean War, his mother got his draft notice. The kibbutz voted against his going home.

But he got a letter from his mother’s older brother, Uncle Yosil/Joe, “the only one in the family who had any education at all” — he graduated high school and worked in law — urging him to reconsider and noting, “the United States has been good to the Jews.”

“‘I’m not writing as your uncle, I’m writing as a lawyer,’” Dresner recalled the letter saying. “‘If you don’t come back, you’ll never be able to come back.’ It said you won’t even be able to go to the levaya — to the funeral — of your parents, you’ll be arrested as a draft dodger.”

Rabbi Sy Dresner and his son, Avi, on Sy's last trip to Katz's Deli.

Rabbi Sy Dresner and his son, Avi, on Sy’s last trip to Katz’s Deli. Courtesy of Avi Dresner

And so young Sy — his mother, “the American in the family,” did not want him to be called Israel, and he rejected the nicknames Iz or Izzy — was inducted into the Army in Manhattan, did 16 weeks of basic training at Fort Dix and then was sent to “Army finance school” at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.

“Benjamin Harrison was the only man to become president of the United States whose grandfather was also president of the United States,” Rabbi Dresner digressed. (“Here we go,” sighed Avi.)

“William Henry Harrison is notable because he served for the shortest term — 31 days. William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address in history. He caught cold and he dropped dead. In those days you were inaugurated on March 4, not on January 20…”

Tamar interjected: “The question was: How did you become a rabbi?”

Ah, yes. Private Dresner was hitchhiking on Fort Harrison. The man who picked him up asked if he knew where the chapel was.

Turned out the man was the new chaplain, a rabbi from Philadelphia sent to serve the large Jewish population in the finance school — “named Pincus, we can’t remember his last name” — and when he saw Dresner knew Yiddish and Hebrew, “he said, ‘You’re the man I need now. How would you like to become my new assistant?’”

The rest is history. After an honorable discharge, Dresner went to the Reform seminary and was ordained in 1961. His arrest that year led to the first Freedom Rider case that went to the Supreme Court. He met Dr. King in 1962, shaking the civil-rights leader’s hand through the bars of a jail cell in Albany, Georgia.

They were partners in struggle until King’s assassination, bonded by their respective ancestors’ enslavement and parallel faiths. Dr. King asked Rabbi Dresner to organize what became the largest mass arrest of clergy in American history, in Albany in 1962, and the largest mass arrest of rabbis, in St. Augustine, Florida, two years later.

In 1967, Dr. King inscribed a copy of his new book, “Where Do We Go From Here?”: “To my good friend Sy Dresner, for whom I have great respect and admiration.”

A lifelong Zionist who spoke Hebrew to his children, Rabbi Dresner made more than 40 trips to Israel, meeting with nine Israeli prime ministers. He was an advocate for Soviet Jews and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. His last arrest was in 1980, while demonstrating against apartheid outside the South African Consulate in New York City; his last public protest was with Tamar on the day of President Trump’s inauguration.

I asked him how he was preparing for what’s next.

“I believe that somehow the thing that distinguishes every human being from every other human being is what we call in Yiddish the neshama, and that survives” he said. “I believe that in some way my neshama — my soul — will survive in olam habah,” the world to come. “I’m just waiting for death.”

The funeral will be via Zoom on Sunday. Avi wrote his eulogy weeks ago, and read it to his dad.

Your Weekend Reads

David Ben Moshe wrote a powerful essay about his eight-day hunger strike protesting the obstacles on his route to aliyah.

Also in this week’s edition: The uphill battle to get Jewish foundations to divest from fossil fuels; the Jewish predecessor to WORDLE, essays by Bob Saget’s rabbi and the neighbor of Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang, and an imagined episode of “Queer Eye” featuring a visibly Orthodox woman.

Download the printable PDF here.

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