Four decades after their deaths, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel still symbolize the high water mark of black-Jewish relations. The civil rights leader and the Jewish theologian walked arm in arm at Selma, prayed at Arlington National Cemetery, shared a pulpit at Riverside Church.
“How is it,” asked Rabbi Capers Funnye, “that these two men from two different worlds were drawn together in the struggle over civil rights?”
Newark’s Congregation Ahavas Sholom marked the King holiday Jan. 16 with a keynote address on King and Heschel by Funnye, who has become the nation’s most prominent African-American rabbi thanks in part to the fact that he’s Michelle Obama’s first cousin, once removed.
But it’s not just the Obama connection that distinguishes Funnye: He has been the most prominent leader in building a bridge between his Hebrew Israelite movement and Judaism’s white mainstream. He’s a member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and at one point underwent a halachic conversion by Conservative rabbis to allay mainstream Jewish suspicions of his movement.
Sunday’s event stood at the juncture between the two worlds he spoke of. Ahavas Sholom is among Newark’s two or three functioning synagogues — the only one still operating in its original building — after its Jewish population migrated and then fled west from the 1950s on. Congregants, nearly all of whom commute from the suburbs, are driven to keep this small ember of the city’s fabled Jewish community burning and to build connections between two communities — black and Jewish — strictly segregated by geography and socioeconomics.
All of which made for fascinating optics: an ornate bima at which sat Newark’s black power brokers, including City Council president Donald Payne Jr., former council president Mildred Crump, and veteran lawyer and civil rights activist Junius Williams. The big crowd, meanwhile, which spilled over into the Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church next door, was a mix of older white suburbanites, Ahavas Sholom’s own diverse congregation, and black church-goers from the city.
Funnye himself preached in the cadences of the black church, quoting both Heschel and King, working himself into a sweat and allowing his voice to swing from a quiet baritone to a shout. At the climax, he repeated the phrase, “What would Martin say?” like a mantra and listed contemporary evils like anti-Semitism, Islamic terror, Islamophobia, and the suffering in Haiti.
“We must become one people for truth, for justice, for righteousness, for all people,” he said, before reciting the Priestly Blessing in Hebrew and English.
Blacks in the audience responded with “Yes,” and “Amen,” and emphatic “Uh-huhs.” The Jews applauded heartily. The folks sitting behind me, themselves black Jews, recited the Hebrew along with Rabbi Funnye. Black and Hispanic kids from the Robert Treat Academy Chorus sang “Hinei Ma Tov Umanayim” and a contemporary song about King.
It was moving stuff, and worlds removed from the typical sermon in the typical synagogue. Blacks and Jews mixed in a way you’ll see at no other house of worship or — well, almost anywhere, actually. Just like the Ahavas Sholom project itself, it was beautiful and a little sad, highlighting the absence of the very thing it sought to celebrate.
Yes, the Jewish community is becoming more diverse, thanks to conversion, adoptions, and mixed marriages, among other things. Funnye himself is a principal at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, which promotes racial and ethnic diversity within Jewish life. A number of Jews remain deeply invested in Newark’s schools, colleges, politics, and community organizing.
But no one denied the deep divide between city and suburb. In the panel discussion that followed Funnye’s remarks, Cornell Brooks of the NJ Institute for Social Justice noted that ours is among the most segregated states in the country. He spoke of the social costs when people “don’t live near one another, don’t shop at the same grocery stores, or send their kids to the same schools.” Absent these interactions, he said, “opportunities for ethical and moral dialogue are diminished.”
Rutgers historian Clement Price also spoke about the “racially Balkanized” state, and “the policies intended to separate us. We’re paying dearly for that now.”
Sunday wasn’t a day for discussing political solutions, but Price did speak of one way blacks and Jews can reach across the chasm. Earlier in the program, Payne had talked about going to the pool at Newark’s High Street YMHA as a kid. “We need to keep our memories alive. Earlier Donald Payne spoke about swimming in a Jewish space,” said Price. “We need to remember a time when this city was cross-fertilized in its public schools, when its communities were remarkably safe and sound.”
Price remembered Newark as a “strivers’ row, where everybody was trying to move up.” He proposed the appointment of a deputy mayor of memory, who would be in charge of recalling this “cacophony of people” and fighting the “amnesia.”
Funnye picked up on this theme. A one-man black-Jewish coalition, an odd-man-out in both of the communities in which he has chosen to live, he suggested what it would take to bridge those gaps, and keep King’s, and Heschel’s, dreams alive.
“Until more of us are interested in having more hurtful conversations” about race, he said, “we are going to continue to speak past each other in our own private groups.”