Israel ‘Sy’ Dresner, Rabbi Who Marched with Martin Luther King Jr and 1960s Freedom Rider, Dies at 92

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Rabbi Israel Dresner’s synagogue, Temple Sha’arey Shalom, in Springfield, N.J., on Jan. 18, 1963. Dresner became close to King when he was an activist for civil rights in the 1960s. (Avi Dresner)

The funeral for a New Jersey man on Sunday comes at a most poignant moment for his family, as it coincides with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Rabbi Israel “Sy” Dresner was one of the earliest Freedom Riders in the 1960s and was close with King.

Dresner died Thursday of cancer at the age of 92.

Dresner was arrested four times in the early ’60s during the time he spent as a Freedom Rider. He used to leave his home in northern New Jersey, sometimes driving all night long, to join the nonviolent protests against segregation in the South.

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In 1961, he traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., and was arrested and jailed after he and a group of Blacks and whites tried to integrate an airport restaurant. He was later the named petitioner in a legal case challenging the arrest that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

While Dresner was behind bars in 1964, King sent him a telegram, expressing gratitude for his “heroism.”

“It is your valiant act that touches the conscience of Americans of good will,” King wrote. “Your example is a judgement and an inspiration to each of us.”

Another arrest came in 1964 in St. Augustine, Fla., when Dresner and 15 other rabbis wrote a letter from behind bars explaining that they came because as Jews, they “remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria,” and because “silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time.”

“He was the kind of guy who believed you’ve got to show up,” says Jimmy Richardson, a documentarian and longtime friend of Dresner. “It’s one thing to stand in the street and raise your fist. It’s another thing when they arrest you in a state where they want to kill you. [Dresner] was the kind of guy who couldn’t just stand by.”

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SOURCE: WBUR, Tovia Smith

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