Commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a Way that He Would Approve: Updating Our Photographs for a New Age

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I keep the iconic photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking together with other clergy and leaders of the civil rights movement in a prominent place in my office. Without words or commentary, the picture depicts a moment of urgency, danger, faith, and courage. While the photograph should inspire all of us to do our part to break down the barriers and walk together for justice, I fear that too many in the Jewish community use that historic moment as an excuse for complacency and inaction.

This is especially apparent on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. How often have we in the Jewish community stood together with people of color as we commemorate the remarkable work of Dr. King and heard Jewish speakers recall his relationship with Rabbi Heschel? More often than not, the audience will be treated to Heschel’s stirring words concerning the evil of racism in America, and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. But the question that Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel would most certainly ask today is, what are we doing to join hands, to walk together, to combat the rampant hatred, inequality, and anti-Semitism that is so much a part of our country in 2020?

How would you answer that question for yourself, for your community?

Attending these commemorative gatherings, it sometimes feels as though the Jewish community is employing the Rabbinic notion of Zehut Avot, the merit of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. On the holidays we ask God not to judge us on our deeds alone, but to remember us by the actions of Abraham. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, too many in our community point to that picture and say: merit us with his courage, credit us with Rabbi Heschels acts! The day on which we commemorate Dr. King’s legacy should be a culmination of the efforts spanning an entire year, not just one day. Too often, such events serve as opportunities to walk in the past; to listen to speeches given more than a half century ago; to hold hands and then return to our respective communities!

Not long ago, I asked Jonathan Eig how he thought Dr. King would respond to the way in which we commemorate his legacy. Jonathan is a nationally recognized author who is currently working on a groundbreaking biography of Dr. King. Jonathan is also my partner in a weekly parasha podcast entitled: The Pen and the Yad. (https://www.ansheemet.org/pen-yad-podcast).

Jonathan said,Dr. King would be very unhappy with these gatherings.” He went on to say, You know, before Dr. King was killed, he was angry about how little was changing. I believe that he would watch these commemorations with anger, wondering why we were not picking up where he left off, marching more, demanding more. A celebration of the man is the last thing he would want. He would want action.” I suspect that Rabbi Heschel would have a similar reaction.

My experience in Chicago has informed me of just how much potential we have to build bridges to the African American community, and the power we have to mobilize our communities for good.

Chris Harris is a remarkable Pastor on the South Side of Chicago. For the past decade, he has been my partner in trying to make a difference in one of the most segregated cities in the United States. We have discovered that while projects are important, the lasting relationships that we build between Jews and people of color are equally important. Together, we have brought the communities of the Anshe Emet Synagogue and the the Bright Start Church together in remarkable ways:

  • We have built a playground together for the church inspired by the imagination of B’nai Mitzvah children eager to make a difference.
  • We have created a trauma center in cooperation with an Israeli organization called NATAL which addresses the very real issues of PTSD. (https://www.natal.org.il/en/)
  • We have provided training to a large number of Pastors not only to address the mental health issues of living with gun violence, but to offer alternative responses with the goal of reducing further bloodshed. (https://www.brightstarcommunit...)
  • We have sent our teens from the synagogue and church on a bus trip to the South in order to experience each other’s story of racism and anti-Semitism
  • We have created a virtual tutoring program between our communities where Jewish teens use their smartphones to tutor elementary age students from Bright Star Church.

In each instance, we have created meaningful, lasting relationships between our communities, coming together to celebrate, mourn, march, and study.

Not long ago, Pastor Harris and I were speaking about the challenges of commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Day and this is what he said:

As I travel the country building/strengthening bridges between the African American & Jewish Communities, one of the first things people do is show me a wonderful photo of Dr. MLK and Rabbi Heschel marching together during the Civil Rights movement! I usually respond, What a beautiful photo!” The problem is, that photo is over five decades old. So if you really want to impress me, lets keep the old frame and put some new photos of our communities marching together now, so that we can stop taking credit now for what they did back then!”

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let us take time to consider the new photographs that we can create in each of our communities, and the Avodah Kodesh, the holy work that must be done at this critical moment in American history. Let us also celebrate some of the great work that is being done across our country. While there is no single formula for our communities, what I know for certain based upon experience is that are great possibilities awaiting us when we come to know one another and take that first step together. Today, let us stand on the shoulders of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel and create our own dreams, and learn to pray with our own feet in our age. Then we will truly be able to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy in a manner that he and Rabbi Heschel would appreciate, not for one day but for every day.

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