Vorspan, Al

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VORSPAN, AL (1924– ), a leading Jewish spokesperson and author on social justice concerns during the second half of the 20th century. *Vorspan served as the long-time senior vice president for social justice of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism). His social justice textbooks (Justice and Judaism, The Prophets, Tough Choices, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice) have been widely used for 50 years in Reform religious schools, adult education programs, and social action committees. For a quarter century, he taught popular social justice seminars for rabbinical students at huc-jir in n.y.

Raised in St. Paul, Minnesota (along with his brother Rabbi Max *Vorspan, a Conservative Rabbi who served as the vice president of the California-based University of Judaism), he was greatly influenced by the liberal politics of Hubert Humphrey (senator and vice president). After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War ii, he began working in New York City at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Quickly developing a national population for his eloquence, writing and programmatic skills, in 1953 he was hired as the deputy to Rabbi Eugene J. Lipman in heading the Reform Movement's new social justice program, of which he assumed leadership from 1961 to 1993.

He is credited with playing a key role in stimulating the creation of congregational social action committees, helping to make them a norm in American Jewish life and being a defining expositor of the social justice emphasis of Reform Judaism. The impact was significant. According to J.J. Goldberg in his book Jewish Power, "The Reform [C]ommission [on Social Action], … [r]un on a shoestring from the New York offices of the Reform synagogue union, could mobilize an army of congregants through the social-action committees of hundreds of Reform temples nationwide." He played a leading role in the efforts that led to the creation of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Reform Movement's social justice center in Washington, d.c.

In the national social justice battles of the mid-century, Vorspan was constantly at the forefront of Jewish efforts. One of the Jewish community's leading proponents of civil rights, Vorspan was part of a 16-person delegation of prominent Reform leaders (all the others, rabbis) who traveled at Dr. Martin Luther King's invitation to St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 to protest racial discrimination. They were arrested and issued a widely discussed public letter calling the Jewish community to arms in the civil rights struggle.

An outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, he helped, with Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, to lead the Reform Movement to condemn the war in 1965, several years before other national Jewish organizations did so. Similarly, on Soviet Jewry, domestic poverty, anti-apartheid efforts, women's rights, Middle East peace and the United Nations (at which he served as the ngo representative of the uahc/urj), his prolific writings and eloquent speeches shaped and mobilized the social justice activities of large segments of the political liberal Jewish community.

[David Saperstein (2nd ed.)]