SPRINGFIELD, NJ - Often described as the most influential rabbi in America, David Saperstein has worn many hats.
He has had a distinguished career, serving as a former director and chief legal counsel for the Religous Action Center, the lobbying arm of the Reform Jewish Movement. Additionally, he was also a United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
But on Friday night, he was in Springfield to commemorate the 90th birthday of a man who has held a notable place in not just town history, but civil rights history as well. The evening was a celebration of the 90th birthday of Rabbi Israel "Sy" Dresner.
Dresner, who served as Temple Sha'arey Shalom's first rabbi, was often involved with civil rights causes in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result of his work, Dresner became close with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a friendship that brought King to Springfield twice for speeches.
After Dresner introduced him, Saperstein spoke about the long history of contributions that the Jewish population has made in the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, Dresner, who went on the freedom rides to the South was heralded for his work.
After the Friday-night service and speech, Dresner said that he was happy to be back in Springfield to hear Saperstein speak. He also said that on his 90th birthday, he felt privileged to be able to come back
"I thank God that I'm still alive and able to do this," Dresner said. "I came to Springfield as the Rabbi of this temple in 1958...so it's a very emotional thing for me. That I'm still alive, that the congregation is still alive."
Dresner added, "Sha'arey Shalom is still here, and I really thank God for it. I only have wonderful memories of this congregation, even though I haven't been its rabbi for many, many years."
And for Rabbi Saperstein, the wisdom of Civil Rights activists like Dresner is a valuable resource. One that is worth learning from
"We're in part honoring the 90th birthday here for Rabbi Sy Dresner, who is really one of the legendary figures in terms of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement," Saperstein said. "So I was honored to do that, and today we face the kind of challenges where we need that old coalition of decency that transformed America for the better."
Saperstein added, "We need that coalition more than ever today...we are a long way from fulfilling [Dr. King's dream], and we feel that there are forces pushing in the opposite direction now, so we need that kind of coalition more than ever before."