Ben Ezra: A beacon for social justice dies


Staff Writer
Thursday, October 05, 2017

AMHERST — Even though frail and suffering from ailments that left him confined to a wheelchair, Isaac Ben Ezra took time to speak about his lifelong activism to youth in a program focused on democracy and active citizenship held at Hampshire College in July.

For Demetria Shabazz, vice president of Amherst Media’s executive board, Ben Ezra’s participation at the Encampment for Citizenship illustrated the importance of continuing to demonstrate his progressive viewpoints.

“Isaac was someone that continued contributing to the community as a staunch social justice advocate till the very end,” Shabazz said. “He wanted to know what was going on in Amherst and wanted to remain part of it as long as he could.”

Ben Ezra, 91, who died early Monday morning at the Hospice of the Fisher Home, where he had been since early September, is being remembered for his advocacy for senior citizens, including reduced prescription medicine costs and using his long-running “Conversations” community access program on Amherst Community Television to educate residents about public policy matters.

Town Meeting member Adrienne Terrizzi said Ben Ezra was Amherst’s conscience when focused on issues of social justice and equity.

“He’d often urge activism in the area where he felt we were lagging in town,” said Terrizzi, who also recalls many far-ranging conversations with Ben Ezra over their shared interest in the Middle East.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, who spoke at a celebration of Ben Ezra’s career three years ago, called him an advocate for civil rights and elders.

“He was a true champion for seniors. He fought for affordable health care and medications,” Sullivan said. “If you were fighting against any injustice you always wanted Isaac in your corner.”

Those who knew Ben Ezra recalled that he traveled to Selma, Alabama in 1965 with a wreath from Pennsylvania to join Martin Luther King Jr. on the civil rights march to Montgomery.

Then, during the 1970s, Ben Ezra was responsible for the state legislature in Pennsylvania passing a foreclosure bill that helped many black residents, as well as U.S. Steel employees, keep their homes after becoming unemployed.

Arriving in Amherst

Ben Ezra arrived in Amherst from Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1996, following his retirement as a clinical social worker, and only just after suffering injuries in a serious car accident in which he needed 12 surgeries and an extended hospital stay. But that didn’t slow him down.

In fact, one of his first marks on the community was championing the purchase of cheaper prescription medication from Canada. This was adopted by Amherst officials and continues to be a component of the town’s health plan.

As president of the Mass Senior Act Council, Ben Ezra led efforts to restore Medicare service to the Pioneer Valley following the withdrawal of Kaiser Permanente, and mobilized support for a statewide ballot referendum for universal health care.

“I found him to be a really committed and passionate community member,” said Leo Maley, an Amherst resident who alternated hosting duties of the “Conversations” program.

“He loved helping people organize for a cause that helped move us collectively toward greater social justice,” said Cynthia Brubaker of Amherst, noting that Ben Ezra mentored her and others at Amherst Media. “He spent his life making his community a better place and teaching others how to do the same.”

“He just threw himself into all kinds of causes,” said retired state Rep. Ellen Story, who remembers Ben Ezra and his wife, Hilda, being thrilled to call Amherst home. “He was a very vigorous presence in the Pioneer Valley for many years.”

‘Force for good’

Amherst Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano said Ben Ezra was “a force for good” in improving the lives of elders. “He spoke up for issues in general, he was helpful to other people to get involved,” Pagano sad.

His appreciation for free speech led Ben Ezra to serve as board president at ACTV, later Amherst Media, and to be at the weekly Amherst Farmers Market to interact with people, sometimes recording interviews there. On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, Ben Ezra took a camera and a microphone onto the University of Massachusetts campus to get reactions to that day’s terrorist attacks.

Amherst Media Executive Director Jim Lescault said Ben Ezra would have authors, activists, candidates and those familiar with issues on the “Conversations” program.

Ben Ezra, he said, demanded that Amherst Media remain independent of town hall, even in the past year as concerns arose that the town might put the service out to bid.

“Isaac rallied himself and others to make the argument that Amherst Media should remain a nonprofit, independent entity that ensured transparency of local government as well as being the portal for community dialogue in issues of culture, education and the arts,” Lescault said.

Ben Ezra earned the Jean Haggerty Award from Amherst Media, and received the Jim Quinn Human Service Award from Western New England College Social Work Advisory Council.

Those who wish to remember Ben Ezra are encouraged to donate to organizations, including the Amherst Survival Center, the Rosenberg Fund for Children and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.