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'Most Arrested Rabbi' Israel Dresner Reflects On Life Of Activism After Being Diagnosed With Stage 4 Colon Cancer

WAYNE, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- A North Jersey rabbi who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the Civil Rights Movement is praying to see the year 2022.

The 92-year-old, known as the "most arrested rabbi," recently learned he has stage four colon cancer. In what he believes are his final days, he spoke with CBS2's Lisa Rozner.

He may be too weak to stand, but the spirit of Rabbi Israel Dresner is strong. His Wayne, New Jersey, home is surrounded with memories of King.

"I've always been very optimistic. I try to follow Dr. King's course. He always felt that we're making progress and we have to continue to make progress," Dresner said. "Dr. King appeared in my pulpit in Springfield, January in 1963 for the first time."

King visited Dresner's synagogue twice.

The friendship started in 1962 when Dresner visited King in an Albany, Georgia, jail cell. Months later, King, who called the rabbi "Sy," wrote, "We are counting on you to discern some methods of action which contribute to our national problem in race relations."

Dresner had already been arrested as part of the "Tallahassee Ten," interfaith freedom riders who challenged segregated buses and sat together at a segregated airport restaurant.

In 1964, he was arrested again, organizing the largest mass arrest of rabbis in history outside a segregated hotel in St. Augustine, Florida.

"Were you afraid when you showed up there?" Rozner asked.

"Well, I always had some fear … Every person has an obligation to try to make a contribution to making the world a little better place," Dresner said.

The following year, Dresner delivered the prayer on Turnaround Tuesday in Selma, Alabama, at King's behest. It was one of several marches for voting rights.

Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, best friend and mentor of King, prayed to his right.

Abernathy's daughter, Donzaleigh Abernathy, remembers Dresner speaking at her church.

"Honestly, I believe that he is one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement," she said. "It ended up helping to shape my life so that now I live today in an Orthodox Jewish community ... But I feel at home because this was the world that we grew up in."

Bishop Mitchell Taylor, of Queens, reflects on how Dresner's presence shaped social justice movements today.

"One voice can speak, but it can easily be ignored, but when united voices speak, it can never be ignored," he said.

Dresner's daughter and son are producing "The Rabbi and the Reverend," a documentary they call "a mile marker on the never-ending march towards equality."

"We want to use the film to help re-forge the Black-Jewish alliance that he was such a critical part of ... You know, we're blessed to be able to, you know, to do this for him and do it with him while, while we still can," Dresner's son, Avi Dresner, said.

Rabbi Dresner says throughout the pandemic, he's been able to draw strength from services that have been broadcast on television.

Those services were from Central Synagogue in Midtown East, so he made one last in-person Torah blessing there in December. His children also took him for a final pastrami sandwich at Katz's Deli and one last Broadway show.

"How do you want to be remembered?" Rozner asked.

"Well, I want to be remembered as somebody who not only tried to keep the Jewish faith ... But also to invoke the Jewish doctrine from the Talmud, which is called 'tikkun olam,' repairing the world, and I hope that I made a little bit of a contribution to making the world a little better place," Dresner said.

Dresner says his family was murdered in the Holocaust, which made him painfully aware of what racism could lead to and inspired his activism. He's a lifelong member of the NAACP and former president Barack Obama honored him at the White House in 2013.

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