The following is an interview conducted with Isaac Ben Ezra (1926-2017) before and after the 2017 Encampment at Hampshire College. Isaac visited the 2017 summer program where he shared his life story—a one-person record of the great movements for human rights in the 20th and 21st centuries. He also participated in the 2017 InterGen(erational) Weekend at the culmination of the summer program. Featured photo was taken at the summer program (photo credit KC O’Hara, EFC alum 2014 Chicago).
Isaac grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the son of Jewish immigrants. He lived through the Depression (when 17 million people were out of work) and WWII—the war to end fascism. His life’s work was founded on the belief that justice for all is central to our democracy. He was part of the labor and civil rights movements and advocated for better health care and senior rights. He died on October 4, 2017, but remains an inspiring example of the Encampment experience and perspective.
Isaac left school at 16 to work to support his family. He was active in the Educational Alliance (originally a settlement house for immigrant Jews), which offered classes on citizenship and provided recreational and social service programs.
The Educational Alliance sponsored Isaac for the first Encampment — in 1946 at Fieldston School in New York City. By 20, he had a history of organizing on the Lower East Side, including leadership in the Boy Scouts and wartime activities such as canteens for youth and victory gardens. Isaac said of the Encampment:
I learned the world was a bigger place—this was my first contact with young people outside of NYC. There were many different political views one had to learn about. It was exciting! I realized that many different communities were struggling for a better life. The EFC helped me to better understand many kinds of political perspectives and created a menu of choices. We got to see how broad life was, depending on who you were and where you lived. For instance, the Farmers Union was very progressive. The EFC represented a vision that felt better and included many points of view. One thing was central — we were trying to understand the world we inherited and the different kinds of movements that existed for social justice. The EFC community was what I was looking for politically and got me interested in the trade union movement.
One of my teachers, Lawrence Reddick, was a Black professor, from a southern Black university. I was impressed by his contribution — he made sense to me — I learned from him. It made me sensitive to the struggles of Blacks in America. I went on to participate in civil rights activities.
We were breathing in so many ideas — it was a great, exciting time — and most important were relationships. We could learn about the struggles in different parts of the country from other Encampers as well as the curriculum. For instance, I met Black coalminers and youth from the Farmworkers Union. EFC was one of the learning experiences that helped to shape me and seek the skills I needed to be a community organizer for justice.
Isaac was also a gifted sculptor and, with a scholarship, attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School for a year after the Encampment, working at night. He then began working at an art store and became an organizer and shop steward for CIO District 65. He taught himself drafting and was able to get a job and work his way up at American Bridge and then U.S. Steel. He worked first assembling steel for buildings and bridges, in very arduous conditions, to support his family.
Isaac married Hilda in 1950 (coincidentally, she had been a candidate for the 1946 Encampment). Their children — Aaron, Amy and Lucille — were born in 1954, ‘56 and ’58, respectively. Isaac credited his 55-year marriage to Hilda for the great joys in his life and for the support that made it possible for him to be the activist that he was and follow his dreams.
In 1954, Isaac and Hilda bought a house in Levittown, Pennsylvania, which was then a new community. He joined the Defend the Black Family Movement there, protecting the first Black family that moved into this white community, which had an active KKK and John Birch Society at the time. Isaac remarked, “In 1957, I went to Selma in a delegation of five people from Levittown. We stopped at a shop in Bristol and bought a solidarity wreath that we gave to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he stopped at the AME church. I was famous for 15 minutes and life continued after that.”
With the arrival of the polio epidemic in the U.S. in 1961, Isaac challenged the county health board and the American Medical Association (AMA) in their opposition to creating public polio clinics. Despite many obstacles, he succeeded in organizing $1-a-shot polio clinics in a local public school, operated and run by community members, including volunteer medical professionals, which served 75,000 people. He organized support for Medicare and challenged both the John Birch Society and the AMA on this issue. He worked devotedly on the successful campaign to pass a moratorium on foreclosures in the Pennsylvania state legislature during the mid-’70s recession. As a result, although U.S. Steel closed down many plants, thousands of steelworkers’ families were able to remain in their homes.
Isaac organized the 1968 Busks County “McCarthy for President” movement and was active in the anti-Vietnam war movement; trade union movement; and United Farm Workers’ struggle for healthy working conditions, safe food and fair wages.
During this same period, Isaac established and became director of the Ombudsman Project for Middle-Aged and Older Workers in Philadelphia, a national pilot project. As a result of this work, and despite his lack of an undergraduate degree, Isaac was awarded a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work. Graduating in 1979, he became the recruitment director for Lincoln University, a Black college in Pennsylvania. He helped working and/or minority individuals to gain their masters’ degrees in human services. Eventually he established a social work private practice specializing in divorce mediation and child custody, while continuing with varied community activism.
At age 70, Isaac and Hilda moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, to be closer to their daughter, Amy Ben Ezra, and her family, who had recently moved there. Isaac became active in his new community, was elected to the Town Meeting on which he served for 14 years, and began doing a TV show called Conversations on the local public access station, Amherst Media. He produced shows for 16 years, and some of these shows are still aired periodically. “It was a great opportunity to learn another skill, and I found an ability to communicate and organize around free speech,” he said. Isaac also served as the town representative on the Amherst Media Board for nine years and as board president for four years.
Despite serious physical disability and pain due to accidents, Isaac continued to pursue his lifetime work for justice and served as an inspiration to so many others in his community.
In 2010, Isaac received the Jean Haggerty Award for Community Service, which recognizes individuals who believe in and demonstrate the importance of community engagement to obtain social change. Upon his retirement from the Amherst Media board in 2014, he was awarded a certificate of congressional recognition based on lifetime achievement and steadfast dedication to justice work. Congressman Jim McGovern gave special recognition to his Amherst media TV program Conversations for entertaining and informing the community for many years. In addition, his leadership as president of the board of Amherst Media was named “transformative” in strengthening this important resource for the people of Amherst.
McGovern went on to say: “For six decades, he has fought tirelessly to create a more just society — through efforts to combat inequality, improve public health and serve underserved communities. He has a strong commitment to racial equality, organized a free polio clinic, campaigned for Medicare and is an advocate for universal health care. His community organizing and devotion to bettering the world around him has had an impact on countless lives. Isaac’s activism serves as an inspiration to others.”
Bill Newman, Western Massachusetts ACLU president, thanked Isaac for “… showing us all that the purpose of community TV is to build community … That kind of media brings us together not because we necessarily agree, but because we can talk to each other and find the good and precious in each other.”
Unexpectedly, at age 90, Isaac rediscovered the Encampment in his own backyard, here at Hampshire College in Amherst. It was to his great delight that he could reconnect with the Encampment, share his history as a founding member of the first Encampment in 1946 and participate in some of the current activities. He visited the July 2017 Encampment to share some of the early EFC history and his own, and to listen to the concerns of the Encampers.