Rabbi Harry Sky reads from the Torah in 2000, joined by Buddy Silverman. Sky was a civil rights leader who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and participated in the August 1963 March on Washington.  Press Herald photo by Herb Swanson

Rabbi Harry Z. Sky, a prominent religious and civil rights leader in Portland since the 1960s, died Saturday in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was 95.

Rabbi Harry Sky, photographed in 1989. Press Herald photo by Doug Jones

Born and raised in New Jersey, Sky became the rabbi at Portland’s Temple Beth El in 1961. He joined civil rights marches during the 1960s – including demonstrations in March 1965 in Selma, Alabama – and opposed the Vietnam War. He spent most of his adult life in Portland before moving to Greensboro to be near family in his later years.

“He was spiritual and very focused on social justice and progressive activism. He always had a driving need to fix things,” said his son, Ari Sky, of New Bedford, Massachusetts. “I admired his focus. When he believes, he really believes. He would fight for that belief until the end, whether it was popular or not.”

Ari Sky said his father marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. A series of marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, were key events in the fight for the civil rights of African Americans. On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers beat the demonstrators with nightsticks, injuring dozens as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard on March 20, 1965, ordering them to protect the marchers on their way to Montgomery.

In the March 17, 1965, edition of the Portland Press Herald, Sky recounted his participation in one of the marches two days before.

“I’m a better person than when I went down to Selma,” Sky told the newspaper. Sky said in the interview that Jews have “always known what oppression is. I can’t see how anyone raised in our tradition could have anything but sympathy for this (the black civil rights) cause.”

Sky also participated in the August 1963 March on Washington, which culminated with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Ari Sky said his dad also had a light side, a “great sense of humor. He was very offbeat. He was a studious, serious rabbi, but he was always a goofball.”

Rabbi Harry Sky relaxes in his office at USM in 1999 with a copy of the popular book “Senior Perspectives: Spirituality.” Ari Sky said his father had a light side. “He was a studious, serious rabbi, but he was always a goofball.” Press Herald photo by Gordon Chibroski

Rabbi Gary Berenson, of Etz Chaim Synagogue in Portland, said Sky was an “original equal rights person” who championed rights for women.

“Many synagogues (decades ago) didn’t accept women as full participants, but he always did,” Berenson said.

Sky’s obituary described him as a “member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s prestigious Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in the 1970s. Later in life, he dedicated his time toward providing pastoral services for the interfaith and LGBTQ communities, and was a driving force behind the establishment of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine and the revitalization of Congregation Etz Chayim on Congress Street as the Maine Jewish Museum.”

Former Gov. John Baldacci called Sky a “dear friend” and a leader who was “ahead of his time.”

“He was kind of the conscience of the community,” Baldacci said.

Patricia Reef, a longtime friend, said she and Sky became friends after meeting in the 1960s.

“He opened up Temple Beth El to the entire community,” Reef said. “He was a visionary, and a strong supporter of the arts.”

Reef said Temple Beth El hosted an annual art show for a decade in the 1960s and 1970s, and his work at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute showed how he believed people yearned to continue learning even as they aged.

“He had ideas and went ahead with them, like a steamship,” Reef said. “You didn’t say no to him.”

Sky was the husband of the late Ruth (Levinson) Sky to whom he was married from 1950 until her death in 1990, his obituary said. He was subsequently married to Helene Gerstein from 1992 until her death in 2003.

Sky was the father of the late Rina Sky Wolfgang. Surviving are sons Uri and Ari; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Sky was a rabbi in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Alexandria, Virginia, Houston and Indianapolis before moving to Portland.

He was an “avid traveler and collector of indigenous artwork, and dedicated his collection of rare Inuit Art to establish the Rabbi Harry Z and Ruth L. Sky collection at Bowdoin College,” his obituary said.

Services will begin 10 a.m. Wednesday at Temple Beth El, 400 Deering Ave., Portland. Graveside service will follow at Temple Beth El Memorial Park.

 

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