With questions about police treatment of black men raising fresh debates over racial inequality, the annual observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 19 has taken on an added intensity.
Local congregations are marking the occasion in various ways, some emphasizing Torah teachings on justice, some taking the opportunity to learn more about the black experience.
In anticipation of the anniversary, Rabbi Doug Sagal, leader of Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield, invoked the controversy surrounding the death of Staten Island man Eric Garner. A grand jury declined to indict police officers involved in subduing Garner, who died as the result of what many described as an illegal chokehold.
In the temple’s January newsletter, Sagal wrote, “When African-Americans cry, ‘I can’t breathe,’ their lamentation echoes the cry of the Israelites in bondage. There is a sense that despite the enormous gains in our society in the last 50 years, there is something inherent in our system that conspires to crush the hopes and dash the dreams of many with slightly darker skin.”
Temple Emanu-El will hold a special MLK event on Friday, Jan. 16, after Shabbat prayers. Donnell Carr, a member and trustee of Echo Lake Church of Christ and president of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Westfield, will speak about King’s life. Congregants are also invited to take part in a march on Monday, Jan. 19, from the MLK Monument on the South Avenue Circle to the First Congregational Church on Elmer Street, where an interfaith service will take place based on the theme, “Courage To Do the Right Thing.”
In Montclair, on Tuesday evening, Jan. 20, Rabbi Amy Small, director of Deborah’s Palm Center for Jewish Learning and Experiences, will lead a discussion, “Moving Beyond Racism with Jewish Values as Our Guide: A Social Justice Call.”
“I have been planning this event long prior to the protests that erupted since Ferguson and the Garner verdict, but timing is important,” Small told NJJN, referring also to the fatal shooting of a young black man in August by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
“I am inspired by the example and the teaching of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched next to Dr. King on the famous Selma march,” said Small. “Like Rabbi Heschel, I consider racial justice to be a Jewish value, going back to the Torah’s command to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ and the repeated reminder to ‘remember that we were slaves in Egypt,’ and therefore must work for a just society.”
Small said participants in the session on Jan. 20 will explore Jewish values related to these issues, learn from Heschel’s teachings, and explore Jewish organizations and leaders who are addressing these social justice issues. “Finally, we will explore what we can do to help make a difference,” Small said.
The event is taking place at a private residence; attendees can get the address when they register at deborahs-palm.org.
On Friday night, Jan. 16, Temple B’nai Jeshurun, the Reform congregation in Short Hills, at its erev Shabbat service, will host a talk by civil rights attorney Shavar Jeffries.
Jeffries, who was a candidate in last year’s mayoral election in Newark, is an associate professor at the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall Law School. From 2008 to 2010, he served as counsel to New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram. He joined the corporate law firm of Lowenstein Sandler as a partner last August.
Jeffries has lamented both police misconduct as well as high rates of violence in cities like Newark.
“Obviously, we have much work to do. I wish we’d devote the same amount of energy to the ongoing warzone in our communities that we devoted to police brutality,” he recently posted on Facebook. “Clearly, police misconduct deserves significant attention as communities of color deserve equitable and humane treatment from their own government. But so too must we condemn and dedicate ourselves to eliminating the genocidal degree of black-on-black violence communities like Newark experience regularly. Enough is enough.”
On Saturday night, Jan. 17, Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in South Orange, will screen Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent, the documentary about the German refugee rabbi who led Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark and, later, Livingston. It tells the story of his involvement as a leader in the civil rights movement and his role in helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington, at which he spoke immediately before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The event is cosponsored by the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race. Following the screening, Beth El’s Rabbi Jesse Olitzky will moderate a discussion with Prinz’s daughter Deborah and Rachel Pasternak, coproducer of the film. On Jan. 19, MLK Day, Olitzky will participate in the 14th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and Interfaith Service. Sponsored by the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, the service will be held at 2 p.m., at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Maplewood.
Olitzky, answering an e-mail question from NJJN, reminded those frustrated by the lack of progress on civil rights of King’s comment that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He said, “We forget that it takes a long time, and we have a lot to do to achieve a just society. Our job is to use this opportunity to try to make the world a more just place for all God’s creatures. If we seek justice only for ourselves, we’re missing the whole point of Torah.”
In a number of areas, the emphasis will be on practical community service. On MLK Day, Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains will be a base for the sixth annual Scotch Plains/Fanwood Martin Luther King Day of Service. Around 700 residents are expected to take part in projects across the area, ranging from creating get-well cards for hospital patients to making blankets for hospice care, assembling lunches for kids in need, and cleaning the local nature center.
Those wanting to know more or register, can go to spfmlkday.wildapricot.org.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, who has cochaired the event for the past few years, said, “The most exciting aspect of this day is the fact that it encourages the entire family to become involved,” and it supports King’s belief that “everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”