As the nation paused to remember slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., three local synagogues and the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County brought the community together to explore the Jewish perspective on social justice.
The Rev. Mark B. McCreary of the Second Baptist Church of Metuchen delivered the keynote speech and attended study sessions held during the Jan. 18 program at Temple Emanu-El in Edison. The sessions were conducted by clergy from Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, and Emanu-El.
“All humans are entitled to basic human rights and freedom,” McCreary said from the bima. “All humans are entitled to social justice…. Social justice is not really social justice, but really human justice.”
He said it was God who introduced humans to the concept during the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, “when he revealed himself as a God of social justice.”
McCreary urged the audience to build on the Exodus story to ensure social justice for future generations.
“The Passover is not a celebration of bondage, but a celebration of the deliverance from it,” he said. “Social injustice will not be tolerated by God.”
In one study session, Emanu-El Cantor Aviva Marer combined teaching choral techniques with the exploration of themes of social justice.
Similarly, Neve Shalom’s Hazzan Sheldon Levin used music videos, recordings, and singing to explore Jewish values in both traditional and new songs.
Drawing the connection between tzedek (justice) and tzedaka (charity), Emanu-El’s Rabbi David Vaisberg cited Jewish texts to highlight the “positive mitzva” linking tzedaka with the pursuit of justice.
Rabbi Ari Saks of Beth Mordecai explored the meaning of tikun olam, “the most important and misunderstood Jewish term for social justice.” Saks explained the concept’s evolution from kabalistic concept to its modern definition of good deeds and social justice.
“When we’re talking about Judaism, we’re not just talking about going to shul or giving to federation, although those are very important,” said Saks. “Tikun olam is about strengthening Jewish teachings.”
Neve Shalom’s Rabbi Gerald Zelizer recalled hearing King speak at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, where King had come to help celebrate the 60th birthday of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, his colleague in the fight for racial equality. That speech was just 10 days before the civil rights leader’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
Zelizer, who studied under Heschel at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said both men had a profound influence on him.
Zelizer said King insisted all discrimination was wrong and managed to successfully switch “the conversation” to the war on poverty at a time when President Lyndon Johnson was exaggerating the progress that had been made in alleviating poverty.
“Some black people didn’t agree with King,” said Zelizer. “They thought he was diluting his message by expanding it to the poor. He invited the rabbis to march with him on Washington, and a bunch of rabbis left the convention to join him.”
Heschel was a kindred spirit to King, said Zelizer; both were actively opposed to the Vietnam War on moral grounds, and both felt “passionately about their communities, but didn’t think they were limited by those communities.”
Heschel also faced criticism from his fellow clergy; some leaders at JTS, while supporting the civil rights movement, believed that teachers should be in the classroom, not demonstrating.
“Heschel told us many times that ‘his legs were praying,’” said Zelizer.