My Favorite Rabbis: Everett Gendler

Most people probably don’t realize this, but rabbis need rabbis too.

And there are a lot of great rabbis out there. Over the years I’ve been personally inspired by many of them: remarkable, talented leaders whose work challenges me, drives me and constantly reminds me why I do what I do. So with this post I’m debuting a new series I’m calling “My Favorite Rabbis:” ongoing profiles of the contemporary rabbis whom I consider to be my own spiritual teachers.

I’ll start by introducing you to Rabbi Everett Gendler, a Conservative rabbi whose moral courage has provided Jewish leadership for some of the most important progressive causes of our day. Today, some fifty years since he became a rabbi, I believe he remains on the cutting edge of the issues that truly matter.

This MLK weekend, it is certainly appropriate to note that Rabbi Gendler was one of the first rabbis to become actively involved in the struggle for civil rights in America and played a critical role in involving American rabbinical leadership in the movement. It’s doubtful that American rabbis would have stepped up to this struggle nearly as much had it not been for Rabbi Gendler’s prophetic influence.

During the early and mid-1960s, Rabbi Gendler led groups of American rabbis to participate in numerous prayer vigils and protests throughout the South. Of course many know that the legendary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965. I imagine far fewer are aware that it was in fact Rabbi Gendler who persuaded Heschel to do so.

Heschel biographer Edward K. Kaplan writes:

Despite fears for his safety from his wife and the twelve year old Susannah, (Rabbi Heschel) agreed to join the march at the urging of Rabbi Everett Gendler, a pacifist and former student. Gendler had led a group of rabbis to Birmingham, Alabama to work for voting rights and remained in touch with the Reverend Andrew Young, King’s Executive Assistant at the SCLC. (From “Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America,” p. 222)

Rabbi Gendler was also instrumental in arranging Martin Luther King’s keynote address at the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention on March 25, 1968. This now-legendary speech took place at the Concord Resort hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains just 10 days before King’s death. (That’s Rabbi Gendler to the left of Dr. King in the pic above).

Today, decades after King’s death, Rabbi Gendler remains an eloquent Jewish advocate for the path of nonviolence. His work has taken him across the world – most notably to India where he and his wife Mary teach the principles of nonviolence to Tibetan exiles.

I’m personally honored to serve with Rabbi Gendler on the Elder’s Council of the Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Nonviolence. In this picture, he leads a workshop at JRC in 2008. Shomer Shalom founder Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (someone whom I may well be profiling in the future) is sitting next to him.

Rabbi Gendler has also been a long time advocate for Palestinian human rights – and his courageous stands have made it possible for new generations of rabbis to find their own voices on this painful issue. When Rabbi Brian Walt and I first began Ta’anit Tzedek and were looking for rabbis to join our campaign to protest the blockade of Gaza, we immediately turned to Rabbi Gendler, who joined our effort without hesitation. It is difficult to describe how much it means to know there are rabbis out there like Everett, someone who has been putting himself on the line for so long, and upon whom we always know we can rely for guidance and support.

Rabbi Gendler was also one of the first Jewish leaders to embrace environmentalism and vegetarianism long before they became fashionable. As the rabbi of a green synagogue myself, I recognize a tremendous debt to Everett, who more than anyone helped to put environmental issues on the radar screen of the Jewish community.

From a 2008 article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal:

On a ferociously cold evening in November 1978, Rabbi Everett Gendler climbed atop the icy roof of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., and installed solar panels to fuel the synagogue’s ner tamid (eternal light)…

Gendler’s conversion of that eternal light marks the first known action to green a synagogue, making it more spiritually and ecologically sustainable, and Gendler himself, now Temple Emanuel’s rabbi emeritus, has been hailed as the father of Jewish environmentalism.

There so much more to say about Everett and his work. I suppose the most essential thing I can say about him is that he was and remains a spiritual maverick. His work remains as relevant and courageous as ever.

As we honor Dr. King this weekend, it’s critically important to honor those who continue his to walk his path in our own day. For me and so many others, Rabbi Everett Gendler is the one who teaches us how to walk that walk.

17 Replies to “My Favorite Rabbis: Everett Gendler”

  1. I had never met Rabbi Gendler, but I remember reading his writings many years ago – maybe in Sh’ma, maybe in Moment Magazine. I was impressed by his comments on raising plants in his own garden, and the meaning of that effort. I had admired him from afar, and I’m glad to know that you do.

  2. Everett is a true hero. When I was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College we invited him to be the speaker for our ordination. Over the past year he has been so supportive of TaAnit Tzedek-Jewish Fast for Gaza although he is often travelling to various countries in Asia to support training of non-violent leaders. This summer Everett told me how during the War in Vietnam he was able to hold his congregational position even though he had some very strong supporters of the war in his congregation. Everett also told me that he absents himself from events at various rabbinic conventions that are dedicated to the worship of the nation state of Israel!

    A truly remarkable teacher, leader and role model. Thanks for your wonderful post.

    Blessings from Jerusalem!

  3. Thank you for such an inspiring post and for sending it this weekend.

    It does help to learn about leaders who have found a way to stand for what they believe is right but can do it within a community where there may be many who do not share their beliefs. It’s like opening a horizon.

    It seems the essence of Judaism to me that a leader could hold such maverick beliefs and still coexist with other strong voices who see things so differently. Debate and disagreement are as important as unity – though harder of course to manage. Think Brandeis one of the Great Dissenters who joined a very conservative Supreme Court and transformed its focus from property rights towards privacy and liberty.

  4. I had the privilege of learning from Rabbi Gendler when he served as Rabbi for Phillips Academy (Andover) where I was a student in the late 70’s. Through Rabbi Gendler, I celebrated the first ever bat mitzvah at Andover when I was 17, became a vegetarian (which has largely continued for 30 years now), and incorporated many practices and beliefs into my Jewish life that have truly changed my perception of the world and our place in it. He is truly a lamed vavnik, one of the 36 righteous people who walk the earth at any given time. bis eyn hunderd und svansig!

    1. Everett Gendler was my rabbi growing up in Princeton New Jersey. A great source of inspiration. Small world, eh?

  5. Rabbi Gendler was my childhood rabbi and I will always be grateful for the blessing of growing up in that congregation. To me, Everett is THE rabbi and none will ever match him. Even as a child, his wisdom and kindness were palpable (even when he told me off.) He has been a great inspiration for my work in international conflict resolution. I remember hearing that he marched with King, I never quite understand the details. I am even more inspired by his work now that I do. Thank your for this posting.

  6. Our family was part of the Temple Emanuel, Lowell, MA congragation while Rabbi Gendler served. Every service was intimate, spiritual, and could be said poetry. I want to add that Gendler was also devoted to the Arts. He had a subscription to the Boston Symphony and encouaged classical music performances at some of the services. I was one of the musicians encouraged. His gratitude and appreciation was great.

  7. I met Rabbi Gendler when we joined Temple Emanuel, Lowell MA. He constantly reminds me that the most mundane things in our lives can become spiritual acts. He has been my mentor for 30 years and has helped me grow as a person. I am truly truly honored to know him and his wife Mary.

  8. My bar mitzvah ceremony was held one April Saturday in 1978 at Temple Emmanuel in Lowell, MA. I was far from the best student; I didn’t have a particular fondness for learning Hebrew, and I slacked off on tying the talit.

    I’ll never forget the disappointment on his face when he learned I hadn’t tyed those strings. I felt horrible for letting him down.

    I remember Rabbi Gendler as a believer, a very spiritual man. I was puzzled as a youth by his embracing of vegetarianism. What man wouldn’t like to sink his teeth into a McDonald’s Big Mac, I wondered?

    I’ve met few rabbis over the years who have left the sort of impact that Rabbi Gendler did. I heard sporadically of some of the work he’s done over the years since then. I’m very glad to see this piece, nicely done.

  9. I had the great pleasure of learning from Rabbi Gendler as a student at Phillips Academy in the 1980s, where he served as the Jewish Chaplain. Rabbi Gendler enouraged my Jewish exploration and supported my involvement and leadership in PA’s Jewish Student Union. Later, under the trees in my parents’ backyard, Rabbi Gendler married me and my husband in a beautiful Jewish ceremony. Although my husband was not raised a jew, Rabbi Gendler helped us understand how we could join our lives together under the faith of Judaism and we have done that successfully ever since! Thank you for this profile!

  10. I wish I could get in touch with Rabbi Gendler, the Rabbi in Princeton when I was the youth group president…he was the rabbi when I was Bar Mitzvahed as well. (Not a verb, right?!?) A GREAT man!–Ron Medvin, Tampa (rmedvin@hotmail.com if anyone knows how to get in touch with him.)

  11. Rabbi Gendler was one of four amazing Rabbis at a New England USY Encampment where I had the privilege of being a counselor. Jack Reimer, Joe Lukinsky Z”L, and one other joined him. I also spoke with him as a student at Barnard, when he was at JTS. I found an article by him in Arthur Waskow’s Torah of the Earth, while looking for a Jewish, nature oriented reading for my daughter’s wedding to someone who isn’t Jewish.. It’s good to read the blog and all the comments about him. Just wanted to add my two cents.
    Meira Itzkowitz, Marlton, NJ
    Member of Pnai Or in Philadelphia

  12. I had the privilege of meeting and studying with Everett Gendler at a NEFTY summer conclave in 1970. Never forgotten. He has remained in my pantheon of lifetime role models. A remarkable human being.

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