Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         


Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2022

Everett Gendler, a leading civil rights advocate, environmentalist, and advocate  
of Jewish universalism died on April l at the age of 93. He led an extraordinary  
life, and was a longtime friend of the American Council for Judaism.  
Rabbi Gendler was jailed in Georgia in 1962 with the Rev. Martin Luther King,  
Jr., was the father of the Jewish environmentalism movement and spent the last  
two decades helping organize non-violent protest in Tibet, collaborating with the  
Dalai Lama. He was concerned that Zionism was corrupting Judaism by replacing God  
with the State of Israel as a focus of attention and was concerned with the  
mistreatment of the indigenous population of Palestine.  
It was Rabbi Gendler’s view that Zionism, Jewish nationalism, is a rejection of  
Judaism’s moral and ethical universal tradition. He has spent his life working to  
make the world a better place for men and women of every race and religion. In  
2013, he received the “Human Rights Hero” award from T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call  
for Human Rights. Also in 2013, he was awarded the Presidents’. Medallion from  
the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He was instrumental in  
arranging Martin Luther King’s important address to the national rabbinical  
convention on March 25, 1968, ten days before King’s death.  
Born August 8, 1928 in Claritin, Iowa, Rabbi Gendler served from 1978-1995 as the  
Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. In the late 1950s  
and early 1960s, he served as rabbi for congregations in Mexico City, Rio de  
Janeiro, Brazil, and Havana, Cuba. He served as rabbi of the Jewish Center of  
Princeton, New Jersey and Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley in  
In his book “Judaism For Universalists,” Gendler recalls, early in his career,  
being referred to as “a radical universalist with a rabbinic degree.” If this  
taunt had come at a later time, he writes, he would have replied, “Of course I’m  
a universalist! How could I dare to be a rabbi without being concerned for all  
human beings? Abram’s original command from God, as he was sent on his journey  
and assured that ‘I shall make of thee a great nation,’ was ‘Be thou a blessing…  
in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12-2,3). Not to  
be a universalist, not to be concerned that through the quality of Jewish life  
all human families would be blessed, would represent a betrayal of the original  
purpose of God’s call to Abram to become Abraham, the father of all three  
monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”  
Rabbi Gendler made a notable contribution in translating the writings of Rabbi  
Aaron Samuel Tamares (1869-1931), the rabbi in a small Polish town. A delegate to  
the Fourth World Zionist Congress in London in 1900, Tamares became disillusioned  
with political Zionism and wrote extensively about his rejection of nationalism  
and embrace of pacifism and what he saw as the unique Jewish mission in the world  
In Tamares’ view, the viability of the educational mission of the Jews to mankind  
and therefore to the betterment of all humanity, was dependent on the continued  
existence of the Jews throughout the world. The Zionist dream of “normalizing”  
the Jewish condition ―including a return to national life was seen by Tamares as  
a betrayal of the Jewish mission in history, to impart ethical living to all of  
humanity. He believed that the idea of “exile” was not a punishment but a  
purification since the Jewish mission is unlike the mission of the nations.  
In 1929, Tamares, who was an Orthodox rabbi, wrote that the very notion of a  
Jewish state as a spiritual center “was a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate  
purpose.” He noted that, “Judaism at root is not some religious concentration  
which may be localized or situated in a single territory. Neither is Judaism a  
‘nationality,’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the  
three-foldedness of ‘homeland, army and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah,  
ethics and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be  
reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of  
Torah, ‘Its measure is greater than the earth.’”  
In an interview with Lawrence Bush, then editor of Jewish Currents, Gendler was  
asked about his skepticism about Zionism which, Bush noted, “is particularly  
unusual for a contemporary Jewish book.” Gendler responds: “Yes, and it’s the one  
Jews seem most concerned about: Israel. So let me say that I am overwhelmed and  
delighted by the outpouring of scholarship and culture and sheer fruitfulness of  
Jews living together and sustaining institutions in that land, but I have  
personally not found visiting Israel a positive experience…My painful feeling has  
been that Israel has become a too-available substitute for Deity or even values  
in defining Jews and Judaism. Israel-centrism is a great danger for Jewish  
identity, and the behavior of what I have seen since the 1967 war called  
‘imperial Israel’ is a great danger to Jewish values…. You know the number of  
non-Zionist Jews in the American Jewish community is quite sizable. And in my  
congregations, people who shared my discomfort with Israel, especially with its  
displacement of the Palestinians, had a place to come.”  
Rabbi Gendler rejected the idea that Israel was the “homeland” of all Jews and  
that those living elsewhere were in “exile,” and in a “diaspora.” He writes that,  
“The entire notion of ‘diaspora’ leads to the view that the most significant  
Jewish fact of my life is my not living in Israel. Subjectively, however, I find  
that this fact hardly matters at all. I live my Jewish life in this place and  
time…My life in America is far freer than it would be in Israel…Were I an Israeli  
with concerns about life and politics in Israel extending to the situation of the  
Palestinians, and were I to undertake there direct action of the kind in which  
many of us in the U.S. participated during the civil rights movement…would I find  
the atmosphere more respectful of civil disobedience than I did here? I think  
In assessing contemporary Israel, Gendler urges readers to “…keep in mind such  
elements as a state-authorized Chief Rabbinate refusing recognition of a  
religious conversion overseen by as eminent an Orthodox rabbi as Haskell  
Lookstein, the continuing indifference in Israel, without any serious move toward  
exploration, of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, repeated in 2007 and 2017; and  
the recently passed Israeli law enshrining to right of self-determination in  
Israel ‘as unique to the Jewish people.’”  
Everett Gendler lived a long and productive life. He was active until the end and  
he will live on through the important words he has left with us, and through his  
example of involvement in efforts to improve the world. His universal Jewish  
vision came long before Zionism and will live on into the future.

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.