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.
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.