A combination of forces marked Mitzva Day and a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn on Jan. 16, as some 200 congregants gathered to honor his life by undertaking good works.
Co-organizers Lisa Biller and Lisa Goldberg, both Millburn residents, oversaw volunteers stationed at tables in the Conservative synagogue’s social hall. The congregants were seeking recruits to support such causes as Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Jewish camps, and the Jewish National Fund. A blood drive at the site was sponsored by the New York Blood Center.
“Today is about bringing people together to honor Martin Luther King and his legacy of helping others,” said Goldberg.
“This is a day about service and giving back,” said Biller. “We want to teach the young people in our community the importance of giving back to those who most need help.”
Zammeah Bivins-Gibson, executive director of Isaiah House, stood behind a table with her 11-year-old daughter, Kai, explaining the multiservice center she operates in East Orange.
Isaiah House is a shelter that provides housing to families, single mothers, teenagers, single women who live with HIV/AIDS, and people with physical and mental challenges. It also has an on-site food pantry and day care center.
Observing that she and her daughter were the only two people of color that day in the synagogue, Bivins-Gibson told NJJN that the location of an event promoting service to the community “is not relevant for me. When anybody celebrates what brings this country together, I am a part of that.”
Naomi Eisenberger, a synagogue member from Millburn and executive director of the Good People Fund, spoke about the grassroots volunteers her organization supports with the aim of motivating others to create their own programs for helping people in need.
In Pennsylvania, for example, a woman started a group that collects leftovers from local supermarkets and restaurants to present to local food banks; in Israel, two mothers of children with special needs created Camp Shutaf, which attracts hundreds of campers with challenges from the Jerusalem area for summers and holiday school breaks; another woman, concerned about extreme poverty in Third World countries, began a drive to collect bars of soap from hotels and make them available to needy people in Mumbai, Uganda, and Myanmar; and a Harvard Medical School student who is studying Alzheimer’s disease persuaded a manufacturer to create jigsaw puzzles for adults with dementia in the belief that it can help stimulate fading minds.
“Every one of us can do this,” said Eisenberger, by turning “what you are passionate about” into a project for helping others.
Several miles away, members of the three congregations in Summit — the Reform Temple Sinai, Conservative Congregation Ohr Shalom/Summit JCC, and Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Hatikvah — gathered at CBH to mark MLK Day with a solemn contemplation of racism in America’s past, present, and future. Joining them were some 30 members of the black community. The centerpiece of their discussion was Strange Fruit, a 55-minute documentary on the history and implications of a haunting song about lynching in the South. It was written in 1937 by a Jewish man from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, and recorded two years later by African-American jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Its baleful lyric presents a counterpoint of imageries:
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
The documentary tells the story of the song’s composition, the struggle to gain recognition and radio play for it, how it inspired individuals involved in anti-lynching and other civil rights struggles, and its relevance for American race relations, present and future. The film intersperses grainy and gruesome black-and-white photographs showing black men hanging from trees, sometimes set afire as they hanged and sometimes with smiling white people standing by.
Strange Fruit was produced and directed in 2002 by Montclair resident Joel Katz, who chairs the media arts department at New Jersey City University in Jersey City. Rabbi Stuart Gershon of Temple Sinai introduced Katz after the screening by quoting the filmmaker’s words from a previous interview.
“I made this film because I wanted to honor people like Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol, who were brave enough to speak out about the injustice of their time,” Gershon said, quoting Katz. “Strange Fruit is a film that protests a human atrocity, and unfortunately the song’s relevance seems to be there in our world today.”
Speaking of the lynchers themselves, Katz told the gathering, “A lot of perpetrators of this violence were considered by their communities to be upstanding citizens, and some of them held public office.”
Rod Williams, an African-American activist from Hillsborough who wore a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Black Lives Matter,” noted that after 400 years of slavery and the Jim Crow south, there has been only a half-century of legal protection of minority civil rights and voting rights.
“These were our grandparents and great-grandparents who were the victims of the process of lynching,” Williams said. “In 2016 alone there were over 400 unarmed blacks who were killed by the police…. It is important to face the reality of the naked truth of where we’ve come from.”
Said Betty Adams, a historian and associate minister at Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, “Connecting the dots from that hanging from trees to what we do with public executions today is very much part of the lineage of our history.”
Asked what might be expected in the years to come, Williams said, “We have a systemic problem in this country, and there is indeed a fear factor that needs to be addressed here. If we don’t come together as a society and demand that this won’t continue, Strange Fruit may need an update.”