K’lal yisra·el, the ideal of unity and cooperation among the Jewish people, was brought home to me at an early age by various influences, but I could not have appreciated its importance and centrality to Jewish life without the literature and institutions of the Conservative movement. Indeed, I believe that my education as a Conservative Jew enabled me to appreciate and to savor aspects and experiences of Jewish life in ways that I would not have otherwise done.
I was introduced to the concept of k’lal yisra·el by my parents and grandparents, who spoke of the importance and privilege of being part of the Jewish people and of having a Jewish State. My perspective was formed, as well, at the United Hebrew Schools in Springfield, Massachusetts (a community Hebrew school of some 600 students, consisting of the Orthodox and Conservative congregations—itself a rare model of k’lal yisra·el!), where our principal, Dr. Shimon Bakon, would explain to us the importance of of doing all we could to bolster, support, and encourage our fellow Jews, a special and unique extended family throughout the world.
A couple of years before my bar mitzvah, I started attending Friday night services to look into Judaism and its meaning. Until his departure to his native Chicago, I was privileged to hear, from age 11 to 15, the sermons of Rabbi Samuel H. Dresner, whose preaching fired my soul, imagination, and intellect with an interest in making some sort of contribution to the Jewish people as a whole. [End Page 20]
Dresner had a spiritual approach to Jewish peoplehood, paralleling what I would later learn was the Chabad approach, but influenced theologically by Abraham Joshua Heschel. He had grown up Reform, attended Hebrew Union College, and had then followed Heschel to the Jewish Theological Seminary after already contemplating the move. He married into a Frankfurt Orthodox family. While he rejected the Reform Judaism of his youth, he admired his childhood rabbi, Felix Levy, and worked with the organ and other trappings of “Liberal Judaism” at Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he had cordial relations with the Orthodox director of the community Hebrew School. He did push for more opportunities for Conservative Jewish education, both formal and informal, but went along with the united Talmud Torah, which he had inherited.
Like his teacher, Heschel, Dresner regarded the Jewish people as a spiritual entity, called to bear witness to God and to divine teachings by observing the mitzvot. He was open to ritual innovations, but regarded all Jews as bound by observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws. In his book on the dietary laws, he asserted what was a motif of all of his sermons—namely, that Judaism and its practices must be taken seriously “as a means of singling Israel out as a people set apart for the Lord’s service.”1
Dresner emphasized the importance of the State of Israel, and of the Jewish people as a whole, in a powerful and poignant sermon entitled “The Wall,” which he preached on the Rosh Hashanah after the Six Day War (1967). He spoke about the privilege of being able to approach the Western Wall, which, historically, “has called the people back to its origins. They felt a sense of oneness with every Jew in Israel and throughout the ages. All divisions were joined. The Oriental, the German, the American Jew, the educated [and] the ignorant, those in the exile and those in Israel, those who lived in the days of the Bible and of the Talmud and those who will live in the future—all were present, all became one, stood together before that Wall.”2
Dresner often suggested that the Jews as a people had always known the terrible evil of which human beings were capable, both because of their suffering in so many places and because of the word of their Scriptures: if people loved and obeyed God, there would be life and blessing, but if they “turned away to their own egos, then they would perish.”3 He preached that the...