Black and Jewish activists came together Jan. 10 in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday at Ahavas Sholom, Newark’s oldest synagogue.
The civil rights leader, who was assassinated in April 1968, would have been 81 years old on Jan. 15. The event was sponsored by the congregation, the African American Jewish Coalition, First Tabernacle of Newark, and The Jewish Museum of New Jersey.
Setting a tone for the observance, Rabbi Simon Rosenbach of the 105-year-old Conservative synagogue compared the lives and missions of Moses and King.
“These two leaders were strikingly similar,” he said. “Moses was required to challenge the great military power of his day and then to fashion an army from a ragtag bunch of people who had been slaves and hadn’t known freedom for 400 years.
“Dr. King may have had even a tougher task. He was required to challenge deeply ingrained perceptions — if not prejudices — and then to convince all Americans — not just black Americans — to respect each other, notwithstanding the color of their skin,” said Rosenbach.
In a dramatic recreation of an interview broadcast on National Public Radio in February 2008, Rabbi Curtis Caldwell of First Tabernacle — an African-American Hebrew congregation — played the part of Franklin McCain, one of four college students who launched the sit-in movement in 1960 to integrate a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC.
“If I was lucky I would go to prison for a long, long time,” said Caldwell as McCain. “If I were not so lucky, I would come back to my university campus in a pine box,” he recited.
Peter Gotlieb, an AAJC member, acted the role of the NPR interviewer.
Following the recitation, a veteran of Newark’s civil rights movement reminded the mixed-race audience that as King fought the racism and poverty of his era, “more than any other leader, he understood the meaning of black and Jewish solidarity.”
The speaker was Robert Curvin, distinguished senior policy fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of Rutgers University.
Curvin quoted King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”
Curvin remembered coalition efforts to fight racism in Newark.
“In Newark we were able to form one of the most interesting interracial interreligious coalitions of people to begin to attack some of the institutions that were segregating or discriminating against people of color,” he said. “It was a broad coalition strongly populated by members of the Jewish community.”
Between speeches, musical selections were offered by the First Tabernacle Choir and students at the Newark Boys Chorus School, along with readings of King’s speeches by children and teenagers from First Tabernacle and Ahavas Sholom.
“It was an opportunity for our communities to come together to pay homage to a great man,” said AAJC chair Richard Kuperman.
“More that that, it was an opportunity for community organizations to work in collaboration to bring together a presentation which benefited everybody,” he told NJ Jewish News after the celebration.
Concluding the ceremony, members of the two congregations, along with representatives of the AAJC, joined hands to sing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”