The U.S. Rabbi Who Protested With MLK and the Dalai Lama

Rabbi Everett Gendler has protested alongside Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama, and calls MLK a very savvy field general who was great on strategy. The rabbi himself says he learned about protest from the American Friends Service Committee

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Rabbi Everett Gendler, left, listening to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Rabbinical Assembly convention at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, March 25, 1968.
Rabbi Everett Gendler, left, listening to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Rabbinical Assembly convention at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills, March 25, 1968.Credit: courtesy Rabbi Everett Gendler
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

NEW YORK – One of the rabbis who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s says he first learned about nonviolent resistance from the American Friends Service Committee – the quaker group whose senior activists are now barred from entering Israel due to their calls for boycotts of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Everett Gendler, 89, tells Haaretz his time with the civil rights movement and lessons learned from the AFSC continue to shape his work today. Speaking of his decades-old involvement with the AFSC, he quips, I guess this means Im on Israels BDS blacklist now.

Gendler protested alongside King at several demonstrations in the 1960s, and reflects that he was blessed to have had close personal contact with him on a few occasions.

Gendlers involvement with the civil rights movement started in August 1962, when the young rabbi was thinking about the first sermon he would deliver later that week at the Jewish Center of Princeton. A colleague called and told him civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing an anti-segregation demonstration in Albany, Georgia, and that he wanted northern clergy to participate.

The colleague promised Gendler he would be back in New Jersey in time for services, since the protest was taking place on a Tuesday. Still, Gendler told his colleague he couldnt go because he was waiting for some furniture to arrive at his home and planning his inaugural service. Recalling the incident some 55 years later, Gendler says that after hanging up the phone, he quickly realized that everyone is always busy, so off to Georgia he went.

When they got there, King and fellow activists Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young wanted more time to plan the protest, so the demonstration was postponed. Gendler hung around as they continued organizing the event. In the end, 62 clergymen prayed outside the courthouse in Albany, but were quickly arrested. The dozen rabbis among them were sent to one local prison with the other white clergy, while the black clergy were sent to another. The rabbis fasted during their two days in jail, before they and the other clergymen were bailed out. Gendler ended up spending his first Friday night as Princetons new rabbi in an Albany cell.

As soon as they were released, each of the rabbis – all light-headed and woozy after two days without food – was handed a telegram. Inside was one line, in Hebrew, from the Book of Isaiah 5:16: But the Lord of hosts is exalted through justice, and God the Holy One is sanctified through righteousness. Underneath was the signature of the man who sent the telegrams: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Martin Luther King Jr's letter to Rabbi Everett Gentler, dated December 2, 1963.Credit: courtesy Rabbi Everett Gendler

Dehumanizing effect

Tears come to my eyes each year when I see that line in the High Holy Day readings, Gendler recounts. Here was Isaiah transmitted by Heschel, the rabbi who had been Gendlers teacher and close adviser at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

It was the first of several times where Gendler would collaborate with King Jr. He was the latters interlocutor with Heschel before the famous religious leaders became close friends themselves.

Both rabbis were at the Conservative movements Rabbinical Assembly convention in the Catskills, New York, in May 1963 when they saw newspaper photos of black children being confronted with police dogs and fire hoses. Gendler decided to lead a contingent of 19 Conservative rabbis to Birmingham, Alabama, where they joined King in protesting segregation in one of the countrys most deeply divided cities. He persuaded Heschel to join him. Heschel and Gendler also accompanied King in anti-segregation marches in another Alabama city, Selma.

The final significant public speech King delivered came following an invitation from Gendler and Heschel to address the Rabbinical Assembly conference on March 25, 1968. Ten days later, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Today, Gendler jokes that King was his unwitting matchmaker, since the rabbi met his wife of 52 years, Mary, when she came to hear him speak about his work in the early civil rights movement. At the time, she was dating the assistant rabbi of her hometown Reform synagogue in Kansas City. After Gendlers talk, the then-Mary Loeb and her date, Rabbi Jim Rudin, and Gendler and his brother-in-law went out for tea. Gendler exchanged addresses with her and began writing. After a few rounds of correspondence, he invited her to come to Princeton to hear a piano recital. Mary told her parents she was going to New York to look for work. Ten days later, she returned from her time with Gendler and told them she was getting married.

Several months after they married, they went to Selma, Alabama, to join King and others in the second march held there.

I remember the police with the police dogs and large clubs, particularly the gas masks, Gendler recalls. Gas masks have a peculiarly dehumanizing effect. I had been a participant in a lot of demonstrations in New York when I was a student at the seminary, and there were mounted policemen towering above us on their horses – but they had human faces. As we were marching in Selma, all the police, all the state troopers, had these masks.

They were frustrated by their inability to cross the now-famous bridge in Selma. For reasons that made perfect strategic sense, King turned us back even after the police had opened the path, Gendler recounts. All of us wanted to go on ahead and didnt know King had made an agreement that he would observe the federal injunction not to march – because he wanted the rule of law to support desegregation later and knew he must not violate it. But we didnt know that. We had a chance to march across the bridge and got turned back. It was very frustrating.

King was a combination of a wonderful inspiration and a savvy field general, a nonviolent general. He was good on strategy. Very smart, Gendler adds.

The couple went back into town and were kind of hanging around waiting, we were going to fly out that night, Gendler says. A Unitarian minister there for the march was found by a group of segregationists and clubbed. He was beaten to death.

Gendlers participation in the civil rights movement may not be as well known as Heschels, but he remains a central figure among rabbinical supporters of that critical struggle.

Everett and Mary Gendler retired from professional work – he from congregational life and work as a school chaplain; she as a psychologist – in 1995. Our definition was: We are going to redirect our energy, he says. But we had no idea where, adds Mary.

Rabbi Everett Gendler talking with Martin Luther King Jr at the Rabbinical Assembly convention in the Catskills, New York, March 25, 1968.Credit: courtesy Rabbi Everett Gendler

They soon decided to focus their efforts on working with the Dalai Lama to teach nonviolent resistance strategies to Tibetans exiled from their homeland by the Chinese government. They have made over 15 trips to Dharamshala, India (where the bulk of the Tibetan refugee community resides), Gendler notes. Ten years ago, they established an nongovernmental organization there staffed completely by Tibetans, called the Active Nonviolence Education Center). Last fall, they went to India via Bali, where Gendler led High Holy Day services for a small, liberal Jewish community.

They are planning their next India trip for later this year, at a major conference on Gandhis teachings of nonviolent political resistance. We probably need to go for that, Gendler says, as Mary chimes in, Im not missing that!

The rabbi can be heard speaking about his experiences with King in a new podcast, to be published late Monday, by students at the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School. Their podcast series, cleverly named Pod in Search of Man after the name of Heschels famous book God in Search of Man can be found here.

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