This evening I had the wonderful opportunity to be involved in an extremely important community event. Our Temple-Synagogue Religious School was part of robust programming for a community-wide celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., given that Monday is officially Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United states. This event was held at a local church, and we had a handful of students and teachers from our religious school present. The kids did some readings that talked about the similarities in treatment and oppression that have plagued both the Jewish and African American communities over time, and I was proud to assist with the singing of Hineih Mah Tov and Oseh Shalom. While many of the event’s speakers approached the subject matter from various Christian perspectives, it felt (and still feels) extremely important that even a small Jewish voice was present at the event during this chilly afternoon.
As I have been reading about in Jonathan Weisman’s latest book (the link is above), there exists a strong historical connection between Jews and African Americans in terms of the civil rights movement in the American south. When one thinks of the horrors of the Ku Klux Klan, the horrific treatment, intimidation and violence against African Americans directly arises in the consciousness of the majority, and for good reason. Did you also know that Rabbi Ira Sanders took the stand in Little Rock, Arkansas to combat legislation that promoted segregation? Rabbis and Jewish civil rights allies were harassed, beaten, and attacked for their opposition to segregation and discrimination. Weisman’s book discusses the beating of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld during a march in Hattiesburg, and the Klan bombing of Rabbi Perry Nusbaum’s Jackson, Mississippi synagogue in 1967 (his house was also subsequently bombed). What many Jews might recall as the strongest connection between the African American and Jewish communities during the 1960’s is the image, mental or otherwise, of Martin Luther King Jr. joining arms with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as they famously marched from Selma to Montgomery.
It is important that classically oppressed people have each others’ backs; and today’s event felt like an important local step to ensure that community connections are made, and that we, as Jews, do not become so insular as to disconnect from the rest of the world due to our unique type of historical suffering. Jonathan Weisman does claim that most anti-Semitism does not get to “…flourish out in the open”, and “When anti-Semitism flares, it is usually inflamed by people who don’t know Jews all that well, if at all.” It seems that Weisman’s view of anti-Semitism is that it can be stealthy, until it is too late. Jews are generally viewed as the strange “other”. The “other” that cannot always be so easily identifiable in a physical sense by those who are eager to spew hatred and vitriol against a group of people. The Jew becomes a strange idea to many, and one of the only methods to combat this type of singular ignorance is to be seen and heard.
Yes, to be a Jew is to embrace some practices that are different from society’s idea of the norm. It is easy to find an hour or so of commonality with people of all colors when at the end of the day, everyone is praying to the same Jesus Christ. Jews do not share this religious similitude with people who might differ in skin tone, but convene in prayer. This simply means that we must find the human congruity that exists within all of us, regardless of color, creed, or any other possible difference. Jews do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, but we do believe in the repairing of the world, or Tikkun Olam. How can we repair the world if we cannot build beautiful and fruitful relationships with those who might not think just like us, but who cry like us, laugh like us, and hope like us. We all feel loss, love, disappointment, shame, and exaltation. If we thank Adonai or Jesus in a moment of bliss, how truly different are we as a people?
I believe that Abraham Joshua Heschel and so many other Jewish leaders and thinkers like him marched with African Americans for justice and peace because to see any group oppressed is to see a world of oppression. In Judaism, if one life is diminished, so is the entire world. So yes, Our strange-seeming Hebrew songs and our different views on Messiah (Mashiach) might seem a bit foreign to some. But, our goal should not be to exist in a world that is colorblind. We can admit to noticing our differences of color, creed, and many other attributes. It is OK to see our disparities. We must not feign naivete. What is important is that we celebrate our differences in a way that enriches our kinship, and creates a beautiful potpourri of perspectives and worldviews.
Whatever lens you see the world through can be resplendent and joyful, as long as it is one of respect and inclusiveness. I hope that our religious school students’ brief moments on the stage during the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration will spark at least one person to deepen their curious compassion regarding the Jewish people and our unique experiences.
When all of the talk of fighting oppression, social injustice and discrimination becomes overwhelming and like a seemingly insurmountable task to bear, it seems we can all take the following advice of Martin Luther King Jr.:
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
May we all find the great things that seem small in our own lives, and make a commitment to engaging in them with a full heart, and remembering the advice of our own Mishkan T’filah:
“There is no way to get from here to there, except by joining hands, marching together.”
March we have, and continue to march we will.