By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – On Saturday, Sept. 21, Rabbi Stanley Kessler, founding spiritual leader of Beth El Temple, was called to the Torah during Shabbat morning services at the West Hartford synagogue. To be sure, it wasn’t the first time Kessler had mounted the bimah at Beth El. This particular time, however, it was to mark a milestone: the rabbi’s upcoming 90th birthday. To celebrate, Beth El congregants feted their rabbi emeritus at a Kiddush luncheon following services.
Born in 1923 in Bethlehem, Pa., Kessler was raised in a Conservative Jewish family in Philadelphia. During World War Two, he served as an aerial gunner and radio operator on a B24 Liberator, part of the 15th Expeditionary Mobility Task Force of the U.S. Air Force for nearly three years, flying 18 missions over Europe.
After the war, in 1947, he married Maurine Evnan, who would go on to become a world-renowned audiologist. The couple raised two children; Maurine died in 2011.
Kessler was ordained in 1951at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he also earned a Masters of Hebrew Literature and Doctor of Divinity. He was among the first and few students to spend a year in Israel, in 1949, where he studied with Martin Buber and Gershon Scholem, among other eminent scholars. Over the course of his lifetime, he visited Israel nearly 60 times.
The Kesslers arrived in West Hartford in 1954, where the rabbi was the first to take the pulpit of the year-old Beth El. He was awarded life tenure 10 years later and became rabbi emeritus in 1992.
In retirement, Kessler continues to participate in life at Beth El when he is not traveling around the world or to Israel (he’s been there more than 30 times since 1949) – or called to serve another synagogue’s spiritual needs.
Kessler is past national chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal. He has served on the National Rabbinical Assembly as a member of the Executive Council, the Committee of Law and Standards, the Placement Commission, and as Chairman of a National Rabbinical Assembly Convention and the organization’s first Bio-Ethics Committee. At the Jewish Theological Seminary, he has been a member of the Board of Overseers and the Chancellor’s Rabbinic Cabinet, and has served as director of “Gateways,” a JTS-sponsored national outreach program to intermarried couples. For more than 25 years he was on the Board of Governors of the Synagogue Council of America.
A student of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Kessler has dedicated much of his life’s work to civil rights. He was among 20 rabbis who formed the first organized group to join in the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., traveling in May 1963 to Birmingham to demonstrate with the Freedom Riders, and again in Selma in 1965.
“At that time – and it’s no different now – I felt that, my God, the world needs changing, as naïve as that sounds,” Kessler told CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism in 2007. 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.”
An anti-Vietnam War activist, he was among the founders of Clergy and Laymen Concerned and Rabbis for Human Rights. In Connecticut, he has served on the Human Rights Commission of Hartford, the Human Experimentation Committee of the University of Connecticut Medical School, the Martin Luther King Commemoration Committee, and the United World Federalists of Greater Hartford, where he was chair. He has been a member of the boards of directors of the Community Renewal Team, the Urban League, the Urban Coalition of Greater Hartford, and the Connecticut Interfaith Housing and Human Services Commission. A former correspondent for the Hartford Courant, he also taught in the Trinity College department of religion from 1967 to 1973 and the University of Hartford philosophy department. He holds honorary doctorates from Trinity College, JTS, and the Graduate Theological Foundation, and received a Charter Oak Vision Award in 2012.
Fifty years ago, Kessler stood among the demonstrators on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., witnessing one of the most celebrated events in recent U.S. history, as Martin Luther King, Jr. described his dream of civil rights for all people.
“I reverberated to that speech,” he told CJ. “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.”
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