With “We Shall Overcome” providing the soundtrack and quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela the script, 150 people gathered at Congregation Torat El Jan. 15 for a community celebration of King’s values.
The congregation’s ninth annual Martin Luther King Day interfaith tribute included a keynote speech by John E. Harmon, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, along with songs and remarks by the Rev. Virginia Feldman of the Second Baptist Church of Long Branch; Dr. Donald Warner, former superintendent of Red Bank Regional High School District; and Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun of Torat El.
Harmon drew parallels among the civil rights movement, the protests surrounding the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, and Nelson Mandela’s movement to end apartheid.
In all three cases, he said, people joined together to act against unfairness and inequality to force a state or a nation to live up to its ideals. When King led integration efforts in Birmingham, Ala., said Harmon, “men and women sacrificed themselves in walking to work and exercising an economic boycott on their primary form of transportation, the bus.
“America was not living up to its creed, and Dr. King’s actions led to the passage of the civil rights bill, which led to the Fair Housing Act and the Fair Credit Act, which led to the leveling of the playing field in the 21st century in America today.”
Schonbrun drew a connection to Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, which began that evening. “Tonight we are here to remember that Dr. King planted the seeds, and tonight we have to continue the work of nurturing those seeds so that they might blossom into something beautiful,” he said.
Schonbrun recalled the example of the students who took the first steps into Central High School in Little Rock to begin the process of integration.
“If we want to push away the rest of the darkness and bring more light into the world, we have to work to ensure there is enough light in the world so that all God’s creatures can be ‘seen’ for the holy and divine creatures they are,” he said. “We have to wade into the waters of corruption, greed, and selfishness.”
Torat El’s president, Andrew Robins, closed the event with a recollection of his own trip to Alabama in February 1982, when he followed the same route as the original 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
After the program, Aaron Gibson, pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Long Branch, emphasized that the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities are stronger when they come together. “If we can come together, talk together, and share with one another, I think we will find that we have more in common than we have differences,” he said.
Zaimah Abdullah, director of a halfway house for imprisoned women, recalled being nervous the first time she came to the interfaith event at Torat El. “I changed my mind,” she said. “People were so warm, gentle, and very welcoming.”
Jerry Russell, a co-organizer of the event, remembered riding with his father past the remnants of a firebombed Freedom Riders bus near Anniston, Ala., in 1961. The purpose of the interfaith event, he said, “is to bring unity, awareness, and inclusion to the community.”
Jeff Donner, who cochaired the program with Russell and Stuart Koperweis, added, “We must work within those institutions that require change.”