Rabbi Israel Seymour Dresner
I have written Milestone blogs about many of my mentors during my 43 years in film, including Don Krim, Grant Munro, Charles Silver, Giulio Scalinger, Bill Sloan, and James Card. I was very lucky to have incredible members of the film world helping me along the way.
But as he faces the final stage of an incredible life, Rabbi Israel Dresner looms very large in my mind. I grew up in a small town, Springfield, New Jersey in the 1960s. Like most American Jewish families, my parents had been scarred by the depression. Quite a number of other Jewish families in town suffered far worse as survivors of the Holocaust. Most came to this suburb outside of Newark to provide a life that was far safer and offered more opportunities for their children than they ever had.
Temple Sha’arey Shalom was a Reform synagogue, founded just a few months before I was born in 1957. I remember my family as being among the original members, but I can’t be sure of that. The next year, the temple hired the very young, very charismatic Rabbi Dresner. He had a beautiful deep voice, with a Brooklyn accent. But as melodic as his speaking voice was, the Rabbi was not the best singer in the world — something he would often make fun of himself during the services. But his would still be the most enthusiastic and loudest voice in the room. He was committed to G-d and committed to making the world a better place. His booming voice filled the room with sermons about the injustices of the world and how we must go out and help. Many people were saying that, but…
Tikkun olam. I had totally forgotten that phrase until I saw this broadcast but it was one that he used so many times in his sermons. To repair the world. I never realized until now how important that phrase must have been to the members of my congregation, who had just in the previous decade, faced the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.
“Never again” was another phrase that was often used in those days in temples around the country. A promise to ourselves that Jews would never face another holocaust. Rabbi Dresner took it even more seriously. For him, it meant that he would do all he could to fight for anyone facing oppression. In the 1960s, of course, that meant Black oppression in the South. Rabbi Dresner was a Freedom Rider who formed alliances with religious leaders of all faiths. He marched, and was arrested repeatedly, most famously with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who visited our temple twice).
Anything I write here will not be anywhere as elegant as what the Rabbi’s son Avi Dresner wrote last week in The Forward, so please take a few minutes to read this lovely article before I continue.
Tikkun olam. To repair the world. I marched in the 1970s — sort of in a Marlon Brando in the Wild One version of "What have you got?" — anti-nukes, saving the whales, LGBTQ rights, police brutality, among other things. I was arrested a few times and spent a few hours each time in jail. I never connected my protesting to Rabbi Dresner, perhaps because I had divorced myself from my childhood or more likely, because it was so inconsequential in comparison. My jail mate was never Dr. King nor did we ever get into the textbooks as the “Athens 12” (or how many of us were arrested at the time). I gave up my protesting days as I got older, I’m ashamed to admit.
But while working on the release of a Milestone film, I came upon this photo.
It was a very moving moment to discover this photo of Rabbi Dresner (far left) standing next to the amazing and courageous young Kathleen (Conwell) Collins, future director of Losing Ground.
I don’t want to write too much more. You are all smart people and you can connect the dots between my religious upbringing and our work in restoring films “outside the mainstream” here at Milestone. Amy has an equal part in our company’s story and has her own influences and mentors.
However, that one phrase just keeps repeating in my mind this week: tikkun olam. Three years ago, Amy and I accepted lifetime achievement awards at the Arthouse Convergence. You can read our acceptance speeches here, but to save you time, there was a singular paragraph that I centered my speech upon. I was very proud of this line, thought it was totally original, and have used it a number of times since, to describe my emotions on restoring a movie,
“this feeling of film restoration as rejuvenation of one’s own soul.”
It turns out that it wasn’t so original. Thank you Rabbi Dresner for teaching me about tikkun olam all those years ago. I hope you will go out in 2022, inspired by this remarkable man, and in your own small ways, help repair the world.
— Dennis Doros, January 3, 2022