MLK Day & The Jewish Community

The WORD 1/6/11. In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – a professor at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary – was one of the planners and conveners of the Conference on Race & Religion held in Chicago.  It was during the preparations for that event that he came to be friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In the opening address to the religious leaders from all over the country, he said the following:

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.  Moses’ words were: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.’”

In other words, one group of people treating a second group of people badly is nothing new.  Perhaps, it’s because of physical appearances, religious convictions, country of origin or some other characteristic.  But for one reason or another, we human beings find a way to divide ourselves into groups and look down our noses at the other groups.

Even as our society becomes more and more diverse, it is easier to stay within the confines of our own little networks – whether it is a religious community, a neighborhood or some other distinct group.

Each year in January, Martin Luther King Day comes around to challenge us to leave our comfort zones and venture into the wider community with all of its flavor and diversity.  It pushes us to engage with people and institutions that we might not meet otherwise.

So, I invite everyone to participate in Summit’s Martin Luther King Day of Service (for more info, click here).  Since none of our neighboring communities has an observance like this, even non-residents should join us!

I should also point out that each year the MLK Day committee nominates three people to receive the “Keeper of the Dream” Award.  Past recipients have been from the public and private sectors, from religious and secular organizations.  This year, two of the three recipients are from our congregation, which I think is pretty amazing.

Eileen Forman Ludden is being honored for her work with TryCan, an educational and athletic mentorship program for special needs children that she helped to establish here in Summit.  As the parent of a participant in this program, I am keenly aware of Eileen’s work to make kids with challenges feel a part of our community.

In addition, as a way of recognizing the Summit Interfaith Council’s special role in breaking down barriers in this community, the committee has also chosen to honor me – since I am the Council’s president.  (For the record, the third recipient is Celine Benet who is a liaison to Latino families for the Summit Public Schools.)

In March of 1968, just weeks before Dr. King was taken from this world, Prof. Heschel invited him to address the Rabbinical Assembly – the organization of rabbis to which I now belong.  In his introduction of Dr. King, Prof. Heschel – who escaped war-torn Europe to come to this country in 1940 – said the following:

“Where in America do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America.”

When we continue the hard work of breaking down the barriers that divide our society and recognize the Divine spark that resides within all human beings, we continue the work of Dr. King and Professor Heschel – not to mention the work that Moses started all those years ago in the court of Pharaoh.




About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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