“I’ve been sold a bill of goods. I’m going home.” So said Rabbi Ira Sanders, 32, shortly after moving to Arkansas with his wife and baby daughter in 1926. The perpetual broiling sun, and vast wilderness he eyed from his hotel room had begun to inspire buyer’s remorse. Sanders had just cast off a dream position as associate rabbi for the Temple Israel in New York, one of the most high-profile synagogues in the country. Feeling unmoored in the city of six million and craving the opportunity to make a more palpable impact on people’s lives, Sanders had been skillfully wooed by Congregation B’nai Israel of Little Rock.
Lucky for those Reform congregants, Sanders ultimately warmed to the Southern city and served as their rabbi for nearly 40 years. An important new biography by James L. Moses, “Just and Righteous Causes: Rabbi Ira Sanders and the Fight for Social Justice in Arkansas,” meticulously chronicles Sanders’ significant, if largely till now unheralded, role in Southern Jewish history. Moses is a latter-day congregant of B’nai Israel of Little Rock and a professor of history at Arkansas Tech University. His book offers an insider’s perspective of Sanders’ life, drawing on conversations with his daughter, Flora, as well as with others who remembered him in the community. “I’d often heard my fellow congregants talk about Sanders in these very laudatory, almost eulogistic terms, about what a great guy he was, what an important figure he was in the community. So I started digging into the temple archives about his professional life,” Moses said of the book’s origins.