Ira Eugene Sanders (1894–1985)

Ira Eugene Sanders became the most well-known and respected Jewish rabbi in Arkansas for his indefatigable efforts in promoting social work and civil rights.

Ira Sanders was born on May 6, 1894, in Rich Hill, Missouri, one of five children of Daniel and Pauline (Ackerman) Sanders. His father was a wholesale meat packer. When Ira was six years old, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he attended public school. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati, possibly in sociology, in 1918; he then obtained a rabbinate degree from the (Reform) Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, in 1919 and was ordained as a rabbi that year. He served as rabbi of Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for five years. On March 21, 1922, he married Selma Loeb, a Wellesley graduate and a native of Rich Hill, Missouri. They had one daughter, Flora Louise. In 1924, Rabbi Sanders joined Temple Israel in New York City as an associate rabbi. In 1926, he received an MA degree in sociology from Columbia University and began work on a Ph.D. but never completed it.

In September 1926, at age thirty-two, Rabbi Sanders came to Little Rock (Pulaski County) as leader of the state’s largest Reform Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel. He was elected as president of the Central Council of Social Agencies in 1927, which served under the auspices of the Little Rock Community Fund. In February 1927, he initiated and headed the Little Rock School of Social Work. Office space for the school was in the Community Welfare Building at 414 West 2nd Street, and classes were held at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) building at 114 East 4th Street (neither building exists today). That same year, it became a unit of the University of Arkansas Extension Department, with Sanders as founder and first dean. By 1929, the school had sixty tuition-paying students. Three black students applied for enrollment (one did not come back after the first day), and Rabbi Sanders overruled the protests of white students, insisting that the two black students be allowed to stay. However, university policy did not allow for integrated classes, and Rabbi Sanders reluctantly acquiesced to their rules. Lack of funds during the Depression halted the involvement of University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) with the school, but it was continued by Little Rock Junior College under Rabbi Sanders. (UA resumed involvement in the late 1930s.) Many of Sanders’s students were employed by state and federal relief programs during the Depression years. In 1934, he helped organize and was first president of the Pulaski County Public Welfare Commission, which soon became part of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Sanders’s wide range of knowledge made him a sought-after speaker by civic, business, and religious organizations. His oratory skills were enhanced by his voice, which was described by one local newspaper reporter as “persuasively mellow and resonant.” He was founder and president of the Arkansas Human Betterment League, the Urban League of Greater Little Rock, and the Arkansas Lighthouse for the Blind. He was one of the founders and first president of the Greater Little Rock Library Association and served on its board for forty-one years. He received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in 1951 from UA; in 1954, he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Sanders first encountered the South’s “Jim Crow” laws just three weeks after coming to Little Rock, when he caught a city bus and observed the seating arrangements—blacks in back, with whites up front. From that time forward until his death, he worked toward improving race relations. He was outspoken in favor of the desegregation of Central High School (formerly Little Rock High School) in 1957. He joined fourteen others who appeared before the state legislature in February, urging compliance regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas school desegregation decision; however, bills to protect segregation were passed.

He was a strong supporter of Israel all his life, which was unusual within Reform Judaism. (In 1885, that branch of Judaism had ruled out the need for a Jewish homeland, believing it was God’s will that the Jews be scattered worldwide to demonstrate Biblical ethics worldwide; the rise of Hitler in the 1930s brought about a change in that doctrine.) Sanders assisted in nineteen bond drives for the state of Israel.

Rabbi Sanders retired on August 31, 1963, and served as rabbi emeritus of B’nai Israel until his death on April 8, 1985. He wrote numerous articles on religious and humanitarian topics and, in 1966, wrote a centennial history of Congregation B’nai Israel. He died of natural causes just one month short of his ninety-first birthday. He is buried at Oakland Jewish Cemetery in Little Rock, the only rabbi interred there.

For additional information:
Albright, Charles. “Bills on Segregation Defended as Legal, Deplored as Unjust.” Arkansas Gazette. February 24, 1957, pp. 1A, 10A.

LeMaster, Carolyn Gray. A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s—1990s. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

McGaughey, Carroll. “Rabbi Ira E. Sanders—Logic & Persuasion.” Arkansas Gazette. February 21, 1954, p. 5F.

Moody, Claire N. “Rabbi Sanders Is an Advocate of The Brotherhood of Man,” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine. June 3, 1951, p. 1A.

Moses, James L. Just and Righteous Causes: Rabbi Ira Sanders and the Fight for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926–1963. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2018.

———. “‘The Law of Life is the Law of Service’: Rabbi Ira Sanders and the Quest for Racial and Social Justice in Arkansas, 1926–1963.” Southern Jewish History 10 (2007): 159–203.

Rabbi Ira Sanders Collection. Special Collections, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Little Rock, Arkansas.

“Rabbi Ira E. Sanders Dies; Long-time Leader.” Arkansas Gazette. April 9,1985, p. 1A.

Touhey, Matilda. “Rabbi Will End 37 Years at B’nai Israel August 31.” Arkansas Gazette. June 8, 1963, p. 1A.

Carolyn Gray LeMaster
Pulaski County Historical Society


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