This coming Monday, our nation will be celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While Dr. King’s birthday was January 15th, we have commemorated the birth of this extraordinary man on the third Monday of January each year since 1983. Since my journey towards becoming a rabbi began, I have understood the immense power of this day. It is a reminder of the still unfinished work of leaders like Dr. King, whose pursuit of civil rights, human rights, and a better world must continue. As a Reform Rabbi actively engaged in pursuing these values, I stand upon the shoulders of predecessors such as David Saperstein, founder of the Religious Action Center and former ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in the Obama administration. I am humbled by the images of rabbis and Jews standing shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King and other black Americans protesting peacefully for the God-given rights of freedom, equality, and justice. I mourn the many lives lost during this time of crisis in our nation’s history, and I mourn the lives we continue to lose in the face of hostility and intolerance to religious, ethnic, sexual, and cultural diversity. Indeed, for me personally, MLK Day is a day of reverence and within Reform Judaism, we should look to the teachings and life of Dr. King with the same focus, and same admiration, as some of our greatest prophets. Like Moses, Dr. King embodied bravery, resilience, and selflessness. And like Moses, Dr. King did not live to see the fruits of his labor.
It can feel, at times, that in 2017, the Promised Land is as far away and intangible as it was for the Israelites in 1300 BCE. It does not, however, have to be this way. In my previous position as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, I had the privilege each year to lead a special MLK Shabbat Service. More well attended than any High Holy Day Service, this Shabbat honored a student from each local high school for their work pursuing social justice. The community would come out in force and our small historic synagogue would be bursting at the seams with people of all faiths, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and economic statuses. As part of this service, we would invite an important contemporary to Dr. King, someone who had dedicated his or her life to continuing his enduring work. During my time in St. Thomas, our speakers included Rabbi Jonah Pesner, head of the Religious Action Center, and Reverend Odell Cleveland, Pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church and leader in the field of applying business solutions to solving social justice problems. For years, the service has always ended in the same way: with each attendee joining arms with the people around them and singing “We Shall Overcome.” It is an incredibly powerful moment, and few would leave the sanctuary with dry eyes.
There is a uniqueness about an MLK service in the Virgin Islands. It is a location heavily scarred by slavery, and a place where people of color far outnumber whites. It is also, however, one of the more “colorblind” places I have ever lived. Interracial couples are the norm and people have long stopped trying to guess the ethnic makeup of children who don’t seem to fit into any one ethnic category. If you ask either Barrie or me what it is we miss most about St. Thomas, I can assure you it isn’t the beaches (even after this very cold weather we’ve been having). Rather, it’s that Asher was growing up somewhere where he didn’t look like everyone else and where he encountered, on a daily basis, an array of religious, cultural, and economic ways of life.
In other words, for a number of reasons, it would be hard to recreate the St. Thomas MLK service here. Nor should we. Each place is a unique ecosystem with diverse needs and understandings. That is why I am so grateful that earlier this week, I received a call from Pastor Rodney Lynch, inviting me to speak at an MLK Unity Service hosted by the Pastors Alliance this coming Sunday. I wish to convey to you how special this invitation is. When we would host the MLK service in St. Thomas, it was because we, as Jews, were recognizing how important Dr. King was to our own understandings, and our own pursuits, of social justice. By the Pastors Alliance reaching out to me, a Jew, they were recognizing how important Jews were to the civil rights struggle. In other words, while both services are working towards the same end, the impetus for our being there is different, and our role and influence in our attendance is different. I share this with you because I hope that as many of you as are able will consider attending the service this Sunday, a time when, as Pastor Lynch said, we can “worship God in unison.” It will be an important moment when we not only remember our brothers and sisters across religious and race lines who stood with Dr. King, but when we also say that that legacy has not ended, that we, as Jews, will continue to fight the good fight. There is no more powerful sight than to look out unto a crowd and see diversity of faith, gender, orientation, and culture, smiling together with the hope of a better world, unified in the same understandings of morality and justice.
Reform Judaism is committed to creating the messianic age, the day when we renew creation. Dr. King once spoke of this age in words we have likely all heard before: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be plain and the crooked places will be made straight, ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’” It is our job to continue this work, and let Dr. King’s dream be our dream, to let the hope of those who started the fight for equality be our hope as well.
The MLK Unity Service will take place at 4pm this Sunday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts and it is open to the public. Wishing all of you a Shabbat filled with shalom, and I hope to see many of you this Sunday to represent the Jewish community’s continued partnership with all who pursue justice and equality in this world.