A Rabbi for the Village and for All Time: Irving J. Block

Carol F. Yost

Rabbi Irving J. Block (1923-2002) thought it was important that he had been born on St. Patrick’s Day, his brother Allen was born on All Saints’ Day, and his son Herbert was born on Easter Sunday at the beginning of the third day of Passover. To him it meant “we were an ecumenical family.” As he says in A Rabbi and His Dream: Building the Brotherhood Synagogue, a Memoir (1999), he devoted his life to fostering interfaith understanding.

With the Reverend Dr. Jesse William Stitt and the Rabbi working together, and the heartfelt participation of both congregations, the Brotherhood Synagogue and the Village Presbyterian Church shared the same building on West 13th Street for nearly 20 years, and earned their place in world history. Today, years after the heartbreaking ending of this relationship caused by a new minister who was not in agreement with its mission, the Brotherhood Synagogue, now hard by Gramercy Park in a former Quaker meeting house, tries to foster interfaith understanding in memory of Rabbi Block.

His very moving and surprising account of the Village partnership could make you cry and laugh by turns.

Rabbi Block and Reverend Stitt were interviewed on TV numerous times. They became world famous; they traveled extensively across the country and abroad, giving talks to much acclaim, planting seeds of interreligious understanding.

The Rabbi is fondly remembered today. Sadly, however, he was a Zionist, unquestioningly supportive of Israel, and he insisted that both the Christian and Jewish congregations on West 13th Street must agree. He took part in Israel’s so-called War for Independence. Apparently he did not know that 750,000 Arabs had been driven out of Israel at gunpoint when Israel was founded; many froze or starved to death. The survivors and their descendants are still not allowed to return. In the last chapter of his memoir, “Israel as I See It,” he states, “There is no vision for Israel the people without Israel the land.” He sees Arabs as tyrannical by culture and tradition: “The clash between Arabs and Jews since the beginning of the twentieth century has been, I have always felt, less about acquisition of land than to thwart the Western influences and democratic ideas the Arabs feared would undermine their culture.” He says: “As Jews around the world vowed to reestablish a Jewish state in their ancient homeland, Arabs vowed to destroy it.” He represents Israel as on a “quest for peace.”

Repeatedly, Gaza has been bombed by Israel, killing thousands, including many children and elderly people. In addition, Palestinians are attacked in the streets almost daily. Israel has an army, navy and air force, and nuclear warheads. Palestinians have none of these things, and when Palestinians respond to the attacks with rifles and homemade bombs and rockets, we are told Israel “must defend herself” by Zionists of today. We are confronted with the lies of American politicians to justify the ironclad support of $3.8 billion a year that Israel enjoys from the U. S.

Jewish American historian Josh Ruebner wrote on Facebook recently: “As Israel continues to wantonly kill Palestinian mothers, fathers, and children, violently attack Palestinians worshipping in their holiest site during the holy month of Ramadan, and impose collective punishment on millions of people, to me the meaning of Passover is clear: ‘Free Palestine from Israeli military occupation, apartheid, and settler-colonialism.’” I could quote many other Jewish scholars along the same lines.

I wish I could talk to Rabbi Block now. The beautiful understanding he sought, with a whole heart, between Christians and Jews should have included the Palestinians. His legacy is sadly mixed. We can only hope and pray that his life-giving philosophy of ecumenism will never die. As a Christian I am grateful to Rabbi Block for it.

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