Prophetic Vision and the Modern Pulpit

It's unlikely that anyone would look at Rabbi Stanley Kessler now and guess that he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s.

He looks to be the quintessential rabbi emeritus, silver-haired, clear-eyed, and straight-featured, scholarly and gentle. This is not inaccurate. Rabbi Kessler was mara d’atra and pastor at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Connecticut for almost 40 years. He taught at Trinity College in Hartford for about a decade – the school gave him an honorary doctorate in 1999 – and he was a correspondent for the local newspaper, the Hartford Courant. He is deeply at home in the congregation, although he believes that his emeritus status demands that he avoid being too conspicuous a presence there.

When he leads a visitor around the synagogue, his pride in it is both palpable and well-earned. It is a beautiful, serene, lightflooded building, invisibly adapted to accommodate people with disabilities, set in a verdant, discreetly wealthy neighborhood.

But when you ask Rabbi Kessler about his life you realize that he is another kind of quintessential rabbi as well, the kind driven by the prophetic vision and molded by history as it unfolded around him. A student of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a fighter for civil rights because it seemed to him to be the only response to racism, a Conservative Jew because of his belief in the moral necessity of egalitarianism, Rabbi Kessler has been part of some of the most defining events of the 20th century.

In May 1963, Rabbi Kessler was at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in upstate New York when a group of rabbis turned on the television and saw images of black people being beaten with truncheons and set upon by dogs as they marched to claim the civil rights that should have been their birthright. Horror turned to rage, and 19 of the men decided that they had to do something – moreover, that they could do something. They piled into cars and raced downstate, booking seats on a plane, getting to Birmingham, Alabama, at three in the morning.

“We looked for lodging but no hotel would give us rooms except the motel where Dr. King had his headquarters, so we ended up doubling and tripling up there,” Rabbi Kessler said. “The next morning we met with Dr. King – at 6:30 in the morning. And then we fanned out and spoke in the major churches in the area.

“We were the first organized group of clergy to join with Dr. King,” he continued. “Some other clergypeople were there, including Dr. William Sloan Coffin, but we were the first organized group.” In 1965, Rabbi Kessler marched with Dr. King again, this time in Selma.

Speaking at the churches was emotionally intense – one was packed with 1,000 people – and so was dealing with the overt hostility of many of the civil rights movements’ opponents. It is hard to imagine now how real were the dangers they faced, but some Northern interlopers ended up dead. (Remember Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both young Jews, murdered along with James Chaney, a young black man, the next summer in Mississippi.)

Like his teacher, Dr. Heschel, and other Conservative rabbis, Rabbi Kessler marched with Dr. King – Heschel famously called such walking “praying with his feet.” It was both exhilarating and terrifying.

“At that time – and it’s no different now – I felt that my God, the world needs changing, as naïve as that sounds,” Rabbi Kessler recalled. “I had to do something, take some significant step, and I’m sure that my colleagues felt that as well. In spite of the existential threats, we had to take a stand.

“When we got to Birmingham, I felt strongly that it was where I should have been. Despite the threats and the hostility, I knew I was doing the right thing.”

In August that year, Rabbi Kessler was in Washington, DC for the March on Washington; he was seated toward the front of the audience when Dr. King gave his indelible “I Have a Dream” speech. “A group of black people were there, wearing kippot,” he said. “They called them freedom caps.

“I reverberated to that speech,” he continued. “Any decent person in the world reverberates to such words. My whole life has been bound up with such pronouncements, in one form or another. We all have dreams; my dreams are part of what infuses my trying to be a responding Jew. We are called to try to do something with our lives, which is itself a dream, isn’t it?”

Even before he went south to fight for civil rights, Rabbi Kessler fought for freedom. Born in 1923, he tried to be an Air Force fighter pilot during World War II but had to settle for being an aerial gunner and radio operator on a B24 Liberator. An ID in several languages that proved his status as an American still hangs on the wall in his office at Beth El as a memento; on the back is the list of the targets for the 18 missions he flew over Europe.

For as long as he can remember, Stanley Kessler was motivated by his love for Judaism and his love of justice. Feeling that his Jewish background was inadequate, he enrolled at Yeshiva University, where he felt entirely comfortable with the level of observance. But ultimately he had to go back to the Conservative world from which he had come. “I had strong feelings about the equality of the sexes,” he said. “The separation of men and women was repugnant to me.”

Partway through Yeshiva, Rabbi Kessler interrupted his education to join the air force. Then, at 24, with the war over and his service complete, he got married – his wife, Dr. Maurine Kessler, is an audiologist and professor emerita of communications disorders at Southern Connecticut State University. After graduating from Yeshiva he went to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was one of very few students to spend the third year of the program in Israel; now such a year is required. “It was 1949 and Israel was one year old. There was very little food, and very little fuel,” but the library was warm and the teachers incandescent. In Jerusalem, Rabbi Kessler studied with Martin Buber and Gershon Scholem, among others. “Scholem’s first class was in the morning; we would sit with our overcoats on and he would warm his hands over the primus stove.”

This was just the first of almost 60 trips Rabbi Kessler has taken to Israel. The country is one of his life’s passions, and there, too, his involvement has been fueled by the prophetic vision; in the late 1990s he was a founder of Rabbis for Human Rights. Back in New York, Rabbi Kessler studied with Rabbi Heschel, who was “my teacher, a dear friend, and a prime influence on my life, as he was to so many others.” Like his teacher, Rabbi Kessler was a fervent opponent of the war in Vietnam, a stance to which he felt driven by his understanding of Jewish values.

So although the impression a visitor gets of Rabbi Kessler, back in his office in West Hartford, is not inaccurate, it is far from complete. To live Jewishly, he firmly believes, is to study, to pray, to be part of a loving community – and also to have a prophetic vision and to fight for it, to understand that you cannot fix the world but to be willing to try more than cosmetic repairs on your own little corner of it. To live an authentic Jewish life demands no less.

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