Brickner, Balfour, 1926-2005

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Balfour Brickner was born on November 18, 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Rebecca and Rabbi Barnett Brickner. Barnett Brickner (1892-1958) was himself a prominent figure in Reform Judaism and served for many years as the rabbi of Cleveland's Congregation Anshe Chesed (then known as the Euclid Avenue Temple). Rebecca Brickner (1894-1988) was a close associate of Henrietta Szold, and, like her husband, an active Zionist, as well as a leading Jewish educator.

Balfour Brickner attended the University School of Cleveland, and, after service in the United States Navy, enrolled in the University of Cincinnati, from which he graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 1948. In 1952, he followed his father into the Reform rabbinate, receiving his ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

Upon graduation, Brickner became founding rabbi of Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C. After serving as a congregational rabbi for nine years, he left the pulpit to join the national staff of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Union of American Hebrew Congregations) in 1961. As co-director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations's National Commission on Social Action, and initiator and director of its Department of Interreligious Affairs, Brickner emerged as a leading voice for political and social liberalism within the Reform movement. He carried out numerous dialogues with representatives of the Roman Catholic church as well as with various Protestant denominations, while monitoring the activities of cults and missionaries. As part of his work with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Brickner produced and hosted an award winning weekly national radio program, Adventures in Judaism (also issued as a tape series), compiled and published A Guide for Conducting Interreligious Institutes, and organized a number of study tours and conferences in Israel for Christian scholars and lay people.

In 1980, Brickner returned to congregational work as Senior Rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. There he continued in the tradition set by Rabbi Wise (who had been a friend of Brickner's father) of engagement with community affairs outside the synagogue. He served the Free Synagogue as Senior Rabbi until 1991 when he became Senior Rabbi Emeritus.

An active participant in the civil rights and peace movements, Brickner traveled throughout the South between 1961 and 1964. In a number of places, including Birmingham, Alabama and St. Augustine, Florida, he "enjoyed the hospitality of those cities' finest jails," as he later put it. Retaining a strong interest in civil rights in later years, Brickner played an especially important role in efforts to maintain good relations between the African-American and Jewish communities in New York. In late 1983 he helped establish the Black-Jewish Coalition of New York City, a leadership group formed to further rapprochement between the communities during a time of particular tension. Under the administration of Mayor David Dinkins, Brickner served as a member of the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Internationally he supported calls for ending apartheid in South Africa.

Brickner advocated equal rights for women, both within Judaism and society at large. He was especially active in the abortion and reproductive rights movement, occupying leadership positions in Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights League, Religious Leaders for Free Choice, and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. He was also a supporter of gay rights, serving as honorary director of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

A vocal opponent of American involvement in the Vietnam war, Brickner went to Saigon in 1970 as part of a fact finding mission at the invitation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was also a founder and executive board member of Clergy and Laity Concerned. His anti-war activities continued, particularly in the movement to restrain American intervention in Central America. In 1984, Brickner traveled to Nicaragua on the "Peace Ship" as a representative of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, as well as making a trip with the organization Witness for Peace to mobilize American public opinion and encourage a peaceful U.S. foreign policy.

Raised in a Zionist home, Brickner retained an interest in Israel and Middle eastern affairs. In 1952 he toured Israel, Europe and North Africa on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal. He continued to support Israel, but often spoke out against Israeli government policies he considered wrong. He advocated for Arab and Palestinian rights, opposed military excursions into Lebanon and air strikes against Iraq, and called for an end to officially enforced Orthodox domination of Israeli Jewish religious life. He was vice president of the American-Israeli Civil Liberties Coalition.

Brickner was the author of a number of books and pamphlets, including Searching the Prophets for Values (with Albert Vorspan, 1981); As Driven Sands (on Arab refugees, 1948-1969); An Interreligious Guide to Passover and Easter (a publication of the Department of Interreligious Affairs, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1968); Keeping Mercy for Thousands (on amnesty, 1973); and Jesus Christ Superstar (a study guide on the movie). He also published numerous articles in Jewish, Christian and general periodicals, among them Sh'ma, Jewish Spectator, Reform Judaism, Worldview and Commentary . Brickner taught at Union Theological Seminary, Fordham University and American University. He received honorary degrees from Simpson College, Tougaloo College, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Brickner was married twice. With his first wife, Barbara, he had three children: Elisa (1956-1973), Barnett (b. 1959), and Adam (b. 1962). Both Barnett Brickner and his wife, Nina Mizrahi, became Reform rabbis. Balfour Brickner's second wife was Doris Gottlieb.

Balfour Brickner died on August 26, 2005. At the time of his death he was praised for his lifelong work for the rights and welfare of all persons. A Presbyterian minister eulogized him by saying, "Balfour loved the world, not just his own people. And he wanted for Palestinians, women, minorities, gays and lesbians, the poor, and all people the same freedoms and blessing he wanted for his own family and congregation."

-- This note was taken almost verbatim from the biographical sketch written by Daniel Soyer and Yeardley Leonard that appeared in the finding aid prepared for the Balfour Brickner papers located at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, "Papers of Balfour Brickner, Collection II, ca. 1950-1997."

From the guide to the Balfour Brickner Papers, 1951-2005, 1970-2000, (The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Balfour Brickner Papers, 1951-2005, 1970-2000 The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives
creatorOf World Conference on Religion and Peace (Organization). Records, 1967- 1970-1984 (bulk) Swarthmore College, Peace Collection, SCPC
creatorOf Brickner, Barnett R. (Barnett Robert), 1892-1958. Barnett R. Brickner papers, 1919-1971. Western Reserve Historical Society, Research Library
creatorOf Clergy and Laity Concerned (U.S.). Records, 1966-1981. Swarthmore College, Peace Collection, SCPC
referencedIn Stephen Wise Free Synagogue Records., 1944-2003. The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Brickner, Barnett person
associatedWith Brickner, Barnett R. (Barnett Robert), 1892-1958. person
associatedWith Clergy and Laity Concerned (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith Long Island Gynecological Services corporateBody
associatedWith Malcolm X person
associatedWith Rev. Herbert Daughtry person
associatedWith Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith World Conference on Religion and Peace (Organization) corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Social justice


Birth 1926-11-18

Death 2005-08-29



Ark ID: w6pg1r0b

SNAC ID: 22856256