Eulogy for Albert Vorspan

This Eulogy for Albert Vorspan was shared with permission from Rabbi David Stern:

I am standing here today because of a sacred pact between my father, Rabbi Jack Stern, of blessed memory, and his best friend, Al Vorspan: long ago, they solemnly pledged to each give the eulogy at the other’s funeral.

Of course, the mutual nature of this covenant made it both impossible and elegant – after all, the wronged party would never know if the other had reneged first, and whoever reneged second had the best possible excuse. Or, as Al once wrote of their arrangement, “Only one of us will have to deliver, but we both have to prepare.”

And so I am here, along with my sister Elsie and brother Jon, to uphold the Stern family’s end of the bargain, with absolutely no hope of fulfilling this task as my father would, nor as Al did so beautifully for Dad eight years ago. After all, Al and Dad did have the advantage of preparation. Every time Al would crack up my father (and himself) with a story, Al would eventually catch his breath and say: “Jack, you gotta use that one.”

We never found an actual Vorspan file among my father’s papers – Dad never wrote the punchlines down. What he did write, every time he and Al would have lunch in their later years, is a list, in advance, on a notecard, of everything he wanted to make sure they would cover: politics, Israel, rabbis, Reform Judaism, all Judaism, children, grandchildren, and of course, their regular dissection of the New York Times op-ed page as if it were a daf of Talmud.

Dad didn’t save the note cards or record the jokes or write down Al’s fierce wisdom. He did what we all do – carry Al around in our hearts, even as we do this day, even as we will from this day. Because for a spirit as indelible and indomitable as Al Vorspan’s, you really don’t need a manila folder.

He was a liberator – not of the poor finally from their poverty, nor of the hungry from their hunger, nor of African Americans finally from the shackles of American racism, though God knows he tried.

He was a liberator because he freed the Torah from the ark, the prophets from the quiet pages of bound Bibles, the light of justice from the dainty ner tamid. He simply refused to leave the beating heart of Judaism trapped inside stained-glass windows or musty halls.

He brought Jeremiah to the Capitol and Isaiah to the jail cell in St. Augustine and Micah to the conference table at the RAC and he did it with a pipe in his teeth and a smile on his face and those expressive hands and with his bald head shining like a beacon for social justice. He was brave and smart and eloquent and magnetic beyond measure – my mom used to say Al Vorspan made social justice sexy.

But it wasn’t always sexy, and it was rarely easy. Rabbis of my generation and younger have this fantasy that justice work was simpler in the good old days – that before Ronald Reagan came along, every Jew was a New Deal Democrat, and every congregation floated in a tranquil sea of homogeneous blue.

But as Al reminded us time and again, it was never easy. It wasn’t easy when the rabbi in Alabama asked Al not to march with Dr. King in 1955 because the Jewish community there feared the reprisals of the White Citizens’ Council; it wasn’t easy in every Reform congregation that Al and Rabbi Eugene Lipman traveled to in the 1950’s to introduce the notion of a Social Action Committee; it wasn’t easy at the 1961 Biennial, when after a fierce floor fight, the Union voted to establish the Religious Action Center, and Al Vorspan was for once speechless, and he retreated in relief to the parking lot where he broke down and cried.

The fact that he was ceaselessly charming did not make him any less courageous. The fact that he was not a rabbi did not make him any less a person of faith, and his faith was profound. For him a Judaism of justice was a Judaism of substance and sacred promise, a Judaism that mattered; its Torah a Torah that dared enter the marketplace and the workplace and the factory and the fields of Viet Nam; a faith that Judaism was a force for redemption, even when things seemed irredeemable. Even when his critiques of the America he loved or the Israel he loved were most harsh, or when he came close to despair after the American election of 2016, that sense of hope remained his calling card.

We have taken to calling him a giant. That is testimony to his defining influence for the past 65 years in shaping Reform Judaism into a justice movement – the Reform movement simply would not be what it is today without him.

And it is testimony to his unquenchable charisma – he could hold a room like nobody’s business, and he had a command of the English language and a gift for delivery that would literally quicken your pulse when you listened to him. It’s a good thing he didn’t become a rabbi, because he would have put the rest of us out of business.

But to call him a giant is also a disservice, because what made Al Vorspan Al Vorspan was his unique combination of prophetic zeal and deep humanity – the genuine care for whomever was in front of him – a roomful of us or one at a time.

He understood the fear of that rabbi in Alabama; he respected our movement leaders when they challenged him. He believed in the power of community, and established the Commission on Social Action and congregational Social Action Committees across the country because he knew that the Torah of justice belonged on both sides of the aisle, where the people are. He combined rebuke with love, a challenge to conscience with a hand around your shoulder.

He stood in front of lots of packed houses, but I am guessing that for most of us here, the enduring image is of Al standing close, leaning in, laughing hard, listening well. There was no hypocritical distance between his care for the world and the care he showed for his own family, or for this Reform movement family. He was at home on the ramparts, and at home in the warmth of a quiet Shabbat in the Berkshires. If he was a giant, he was a giant who remembered your name.

We have taken to calling him a prophet. That is testimony to his remarkable courage and ethical compass. But as Aron Hirt-Manheimer wrote in his beautiful remembrance this week, no prophet was ever as funny as Al Vorspan – although if Jeremiah and Amos did tell stories like Al’s, we can understand why their jokes didn’t end up in the Bible. And of course, nobody took greater joy in a Vorspan story than Vorspan.

If you want to laugh until you cry, read Al’s blog post (July 25, 2016), called “Sex and The Retirement Home,” his response to an article earlier that month in the New York Times about how the Hebrew Home in Riverdale had started to encourage sexual activity among residents. I have made a career choice not to recount any of it here.

Al was a beloved mentor, teacher and friend to generations of Reform rabbis, stirring the fires of social justice activism in countless CCAR members and the communities we serve. He made us better every day, and it’s my honor to extend sympathies to all of Al’s family on behalf of our family of rabbis.

He was a teacher for generations; a friend for the ages; a beloved brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather; and above all else and every day, Shirley’s steadfast companion. If Al was magic, Al and Shirley were more so; she had his number and she had his heart. May the artist and the activist be together again in whatever Hillsdale the heavens have to offer.

Some 1500 years ago, the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 3a) told us of Rabbi Yosei, who went to pray in the ruins of Jerusalem. Elijah the prophet came and gently rebuked the sage for praying in the ruins, a practice the rabbis considered to be both physically and spiritually dangerous. Elijah teaches Yosei that though the ruins may have felt safe and familiar, he should have prayed in the open, out on the road, out in the world.

Al Vorspan was our Elijah, summoning us beyond the ruins of parochialism, of paralysis, of self-righteousness, of despair – calling us to bring our prayers and deeds onto the road and into a world desperately in need of healing.

Two years ago, at the age of 93, Al Vorspan wrote a dialogue he called “The Debate in My Head,” a conversation between what he called his Inner Realist and his Inner Idealist, both characters labeled “Me” on the page. Eventually, the Inner Realist says: “It’s time to disengage, old man. Turn it off. Exit gracefully. The game is over for you. Cash in your chips, turn off MSNBC, read that book by Amos Oz, write a memoir for your grandkids.”

But the Inner Idealist comes back with the account of Al’s Navy experience in the Pacific during World War II, when his ship was hit by a Japanese bomber outside of Okinawa, and how amidst the wounded and the dead, Al’s fear gave way to a sense of courage and duty. Then the Inner Idealist effectively wins the debate with these words:

“Who are you to decide the game is over? The truth is, the biggest game is just beginning. And it will need all hands on deck. Young, old, blue state, red state. People need to wake up, storm their congressman’s office, demand the America they once took for granted: humane, democratic, fair, welcoming. We need to wake up and demand an America which does not place the environment and the planet at risk; an America which does not comfort the comfortable at the expense of the weak and the poor; an America that is once again a light to the world!”

Classic Vorspan: admitting that it’s a struggle, and then soaring in hope and inspiration to win the day. At 93 and 95 and every day, he was a prophet who laughed, a giant who remembered you, an Elijah who summoned us to our better selves.

We will miss him greatly, but the Vorspan file is secure and enduring: when our own standards start to slip, we will remember his integrity; when we begin to retreat from the heat of the day, we will gain courage from his compass; when we start to take ourselves too seriously, we will remember how he made justice and joy sing together. He has left us a legacy of shining conscience and deep love.

Sail on, sweet sailor, brave spirit. May your example ever light our way.

Albert Vorspan, zecher tzaddik livracha – may the memory of the righteous abide for blessing. Amen.

This Eulogy for Albert Vorspan was shared with permission from Rabbi David Stern. Rabbi Stern is the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas.