Remembering Al Vorspan, z"l: The Prophet Who Loved to Laugh

February 17, 2019Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Albert Vorspan, z"l, a giant for social justice, died on February 17 at the age of 95.

When Al helped organize the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in the nation’s capital, he could not have imagined that some 70 years later, he’d be viewed by many as a giant of social justice – even as a modern Hebrew prophet.

What did Al have in common with Amos or Micah or Isaiah? Like them, Al was not afraid to speak truth to power. Though he never claimed to be God’s spokesperson, Al felt commanded by the Torah’s ethical values and a love of humanity.

In 1964, Al 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, FL.  Al would later write:

“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.”

An early opponent of the Vietnam War, Al did not protest as a pacifist – he had fought in the U.S. Navy during World War II – but as one who believed that U.S. involvement in Vietnam constituted an unjust war. Sen. Thomas J. Dodd, then a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security rebuked Al for reflecting "a vociferous minority" rather than “mainstream Jewish opinion.”

Though a lifelong Zionist, Al wrote of the first Palestinian intifada in The New York Times Magazine (1988), “Israelis now seem the oppressors, Palestinians the victims." In the face of a furious backlash, Al said, “Behold the turtle, it only makes progress when it sticks out its neck.”

The ancient prophets were not known for their humor, but Al loved to laugh. Whenever he heard a joke he liked, he’d scribble it on a scrap of paper and stuff it in his jacket pocket. In the offices of the Union for Reform Judaism, he frequently cheered up his colleagues by telling jokes. He’d wait for a reaction, then laugh so hard he’d fold over, red-faced, until he could catch his breath.

If the Book of Prophets defined his life’s work, Song of Songs, with its images of lovers frolicking in a garden, defined the relationship he had with his wife of 72 years, Shirley, of blessed memory.  When Al was not traveling the proverbial train of tikkun olam (repairing the world), he would head for their country retreat, a restored mill house with a spring fed pond in Hillsdale, NY. 

“This ultimately became the Golden Pond mecca,” he recalled, “where Shirley presided and where our kids, and in time their lovely mates, and grandkids, grew like flowers in Shirley’s garden. Over the decades, in glowing Hillsdale, our burgeoning family sang and danced and argued and ate and hiked and loved and lived….”

The direction of America in the months following the 2016 election sometimes depressed Al, but not for long. He wrote,

“The last time I felt such despair was in 1945, when my ship was almost destroyed by a kamikaze plane in the Pacific, and I saw shipmates, dead and wounded, lying on the deck and my ship afire….

“Ripping babies from their mothers and separating families at the border is not the America I imagined after Hitler and Hirohito.

“I see democracy losing ground in America. The signs: our free press is under attack. The lie has become a weapon to shatter civility. White power nationalists have been emboldened to openly spread hatred and exclusion here and abroad….

“You may be thinking, wait a minute, this is only an early round in a long fight that I know my kids and grandkids and millions of outraged Americans, jolted awake, will ultimately win. America once again will be the light to the world.

“I do not despair. Looking back at World War Two, we did not abandon our ship; we saved it, and we fought again until our enemies were vanquished.

“I am feeling better now than when I started this catharsis.  Thanks for hanging with me.

“Come the election, I may sing and dance and toss my navy hat into the air and feel my life’s work was not wasted.”

For more on the death of Al Vorspan, z"l:

For more in Al's own words:

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