The HUC-JIR community joins the Reform Movement and the larger Jewish world in mourning for Albert Vorspan, Senior Vice President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism and director emeritus of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, who died Sunday at his home in New Paltz, NY. Al Vorspan was integral to the creation of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC. He had just celebrated his 95th birthday, surrounded by family and friends.
For nearly 60 years, Vorspan served as the conscience of the Reform Movement and the voice of our relentless pursuit of tikkun olam. A decorated WWII naval veteran, Vorspan spent his life pursuing peace and justice. He worked as the director of the Commission on Social Action at the Union for 40 years until he retired in 1993. “The history of the Commission on Social Action and the history of the Union is that we stick our necks out when everyone else is hiding,” according to Vorspan.
Vorspan wrote countless books and articles on Social Justice and the Jewish community, including Justice and Judaism, The Prophets, Tough Choices, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice. His writings are still used in classrooms in synagogues throughout North America. For nearly 25 years, Vorspan taught a popular class on social Justice on our New York campus with Rabbi Jerome Davidson.
Beyond the doors of HUC-JIR and the URJ, Vorspan was a lifelong activist. He was instrumental in organizing a group of rabbis who traveled to St Augustine, Florida at the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That group was arrested, and Al was one of the composers of the famous “Letter from St. Augustine” calling on the Jewish community to join the civil rights movement.
Vorspan was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, a voice in support of Soviet Jewry, and a leader in anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa. Indeed, there was not a single issue of national or international importance that escaped his thoughtful and impassioned analysis and commentary.
Vorspan inspired and counseled innumerable leaders of the within and beyond the Jewish community and was honored in 1988 by HUC-JIR with an honorary doctorate. Perhaps most important and memorable was his sense of humor. His boundless optimism and quick wit allowed him to connect with people of every age, faith, race, and sexual orientation and invite them to join him in making the world a better place.
Our world is better, and we are more devoted to its improvement because of Al Vorspan. He will be sorely missed. Y’hi zichro baruch – his memory will be a blessing.
Sue Neuman Hochberg, Chair, Board of Governors
Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., Interim President