By Karen Rubin, News-Photos-Features.com
Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, Long Island, New York, has long been an social justice and civil rights activist, and for more than 25 years, has hosted a Martin Luther King Shabbat Service. Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr., himself, addressed Temple Beth-El congregation from this pulpit 56 years ago.
“We do this service every year not merely to remember an historical event—as though it were a moment, or a series of moments, that occurred once and are now fossilized in time,” said Rabbi A. Brian Stoller. “If that were the case, we could simply read about it in history books as a matter of curiosity. We come together at sacred moments like this, year after year, to translate history into present and future.”
It is fitting that the MLK Shabbat Service happens to come when the Torah reading for Jews everywhere begins reading the book of Exodus, the story of how Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Milk and Honey.
Attorney General Letitia James gave the keynote. Here are highlights from her remarks:
The greatest honor and sign of respect is to be invited into another’s place of worship – this is a holy place. So many others have spoken here. I am honored and privileged to say a few words this evening, and be welcomed to your sanctuary. You can never take that for granted – many places in world, even in this country to have Jews, Christians, blacks, whites, young, old, coming together for most basic ritual we do.
That we are all together tonight, cannot be overstated – to pray, for spiritual enrichment, to summon God, to commemorate freedom from bondage and commemorate creation.
We all know someone who gave up something to be here – who sacrificed lives – parent/grandparents, survived Holocaust, pograms – perhaps we have some here this evening.
Our ancestors enslaved in Egypt, Europe and here in America – our ancestors fought for our right to be here- standing up to their oppressors, taking risks, protesting injustice.
It feels fitting that we receive that message from Torah this week, the week we honor the life, legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. – the person we most credit for the fight for civil rights, the quest for freedom.One of the most influential figures to enter history.
There were two midwives who engaged in the first recorded instance of civil disobedience: the new pharaoh decreed Jewish people were now slaves, midwives should kill their baby boys when they were born. But Shiphrah and Puah refused, feared doing something immortal more than they feared the pharaoh – midwives do what they do because that’s what a human being is supposed to do.
Pharoah continued to enslave the Jewish people for  years to come – but acts paved the way for Pharaoh’s daughter to take Moses from the river to nurture. Moses, who ultimately freed the Jewish people and lead them to the promised land.
We should learn from these midwives and pharoah’s daughter that when faced [with evil], even if means disobeying the rules, angering those who are powerful, [when called to do the right thing] the answer is simple, the answer is yes.
Dr. King led movement of ordinary people fed up with the injustices of society, savage inequities, who refused to move to the back of the bus, refused to leave the lunch counter, attend inferior schools, live in uninhabitable housing, but who could not exercise most basic right, right to vote.
He had hope for a better society [and that people would come forward like] Shiphrah and Puah, who marched with Dr King.
56 years ago Dr. King was here at this congregation, speaking of his vision that one day would live in harmony. He had two versions: “One is a beautiful America, where there is the milk of opportunity and the honey of equality. There is another America where the daily ugliness has transformed the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”
We made progress but much more to do – there are many pharaohs who stand in our way, who try to push us down, drag us backwards – too many who would take advantage of the most vulnerable to line their pockets, who spread hate, who separate us by race and artificial constructs.
It can feel like we are in the eye of moral crisis. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by hate and bigotry that continues to spread in America. I am sure I am not alone.
It is overwhelming when we read of acts of antisemitism every day, see shocking videos of bigoted, deadly assaults against our fellow citizens, even worse, when we see children commit these acts of hate. Children should know better, should be taught to respect and love. . These individuals who engage in these deadly assaults simply because of racial, ethnic, religious differences, we must confront them, even if they are our neighbors, even if they look like us, we’ve got to confront them.
It can be all consuming to know white supremacists and their ideas are allowed to breed, fester in darkest corners of internet and basements, leading to Nazis in Charlottesville, and evil individuals targeting our houses of worship, like Mother Emanuel in Charleston, Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, a grocery store named Topps in Buffalo.
We can feel paralyzed by widespread attacks on fundamental rights, not knowing how to turn and respond, even as I stand before you, watching nationwide effort to deny us our voting rights, wystemic dismantling of hard fought civil rights gained at the Supreme Court, and efforts around the country to erase the Black and Jewish experience from textbooks, Diversity, inclusion at elementary schools, college campuses, workplaces.
Through it all, we find comfort that those who have seen ugly face of hate – women, Jews, Blacks, Asian, LBGTQ – understand we all carry the responsibility of standing up to it, have a special charge to show up and stand up for one another.
As an African American, I have responsibility to speak out against antisemitism, not just allow only the Jewish community to speak out, just as Martin Luther King reminded us that though it was illegal to aid and comfort Jews in Hitler’s Germany, but had he lived in Germany then, he would have aided Jewish brothers and sisters, even if it were illegal.
We have a responsibility to stand up taller, speak louder, act more deliberately, and if history is any guide for the future, we have so much to be hopeful about.
Jews and blacks have a long history that is intertwined – hands that made bricks without straw, joining with the hands that picked cotton, the hands of drum majors for justice, righteousness, all of us.
So many times in history, there were Jews who disobeyed the rules because they knew how wrong the rules were – this is what should be taught.
Far back, it was Jewish merchants in the South who would address Blacks as Mr. and Mrs., who would allow Black customers to enter the front door, not the back.
And Jewish leaders were some of earliest supporters of groundbreaking organizations and Jewish philanthropists like Julius Rosenthal [along with Henry Moscowitz, Lillian Wald, and Rabbis Emil Hirsh and Stephen Wise who in 1909] founded the NAACP and created the first HBUC schools like Howard University School of Law – because he believed that Black children should have the same opportunity as white children
And when the fight for freedom hit the Supreme Court, it was research by American Jewish Committee and the Anti Defamation League, and American Jewish Congress that helped prevail – and all that was done in the halls of Howard University, where Blacks and Jews together came up with the winning legal strategy to overcome segregation in this nation.
During the 1960s, it was Jews [like Rabbi Walter Plaut of Temple Emanuel in Great Neck] who rode freedom buses in the South, stayed in humble homes, marched in Selma, Birmingham, and they died too.
Blood scattered all over the South. No one said Black blood, Jewish blood, just blood of those who died for what was right.
They worked voter registration drives because they believed the color of your skin didn’t make you more or, less of a person. Everyone’s voice should be equal.
It would have been easier, safer to follow the rules, stay home, stay silent, but no, the Torah teaches you that the moral imperative is to act – far greater than following the rules.
[As one who rarely follows rules I know] they knew consequences in face of such hateful aggressors but they acted anyway.
In 1963, at the March on Washington, before MLK delivered the “I have dream” speech, Rabbi [Joachim] Prinz [President of the American Jewish Congress] spoke, saying, “When I was the Rabbi of the Jewish community of Berlin under Hitler, I learned many things, most important was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem, the most urgent and the most disgraceful, shameful, tragic problem is silence.”
Just months before, while Martin Luther King was sitting in a Birmingham jail, arrested for participating in civil rights demonstration, he wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Some 60 years later, the good people are making their voices heard. The moral arc of universe is long but bends toward justice.
Continue to carry Dr King’s fight through 2023 and beyond.
Stand up for what we believe in, fighting back against those forces that seek to deny and divide us, committing to forward progress and being responsible to do right thing even when the odds are stacked against; breaking the rules that never should have been rules in the first place.
MLK had the audacity to stand up for the moral compass of our society.
Even though I may have my moments of doubt, sadness, I remain overwhelmingly hopeful, buoyed by progress we have made.
Just think: regardless of your politics tonight, when you see the son of a black woman who picked cotton, and the grandson of Jewish immigrants, standing together [as U.S.Senators] in a state in the cradle of Deep South, that’s progress.
When leaders of Democratic party in the Congress are Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries that’s progress.
And I am hopeful the cries for justice and equality are too loud, too strong and too diverse to be silenced or ignored, we march with millions of feet for progress cannot be ignored not now, or ever.
I am hopeful love, acceptance, inclusion will always push out hate, darkness, that these will be the ideals you pass along to your children…Teach them the beauty of all God’s children, that silence in face of hate and discrimination simply cannot be.
And God’s love, ah, god’s love knows no race, or ethnicity, that we are all covered by his grace and mercy.
I am hopeful because of people like all of you in this room – seeing that spark that ignites the fires of change, always simmering but never fully flamed throughout our nation’s history.
I am thankful this temple would embrace this woman, who believes in change, and fights each and every day for progress..
56 years ago you welcomed Dr King to your congregation at a time when people still feared each other and when many questioned Dr King’s intentions.
This congregation knew painfully well what was at stake and the heavy toll of silence…
In the beautiful words of your executive director, Stuart Botwinick, “Jews have a special responsibility to hold up and support those who are held down, and we continue till this day to look towards equality and civil rights, do our part to lift people up.”
All of you are essential to make progress possible, when it comes to fight the ugly face of discrimination…
I will stand with you …there is no space between us, to move our nation closer to the vision that Dr King had for all of us, because we, my friends, are all children of his dream, and that dream must live on. His legacy deserves it, we deserve it, so do our children…Let’s pray and keep the dream alive.
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