The recent election of the amazing Cory Booker as mayor of Newark portends a period of a renewed special relationship between the African-American and Jewish communities. Cory, who served as president of my L’Chaim Society at Oxford University and is one of the finest and most inspiring human beings I have ever met, has always had a unique connection with the Jewish community. At Oxford, he shared with hundreds of Jewish students the inspiring yet highly painful legacy of the African-American community, just as we shared with Cory the depth of our tradition. It is because of Cory that I fell in love with the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., memorized many of his speeches, and read everything I could find on this great and special American. And similarly, by serving as a non-Jewish president of a major Jewish organization, Cory demonstrated an unparalleled ability to lead those whose traditions and foundations may be substantially different from his own. Till today, the frequent visits Cory makes to our home for Shabbos dinner are special treats for all the Jewish participants, who are lifted up by his special capacity for human inspiration.
The relationship between blacks and Jews was built on a shared faith rather than a shared oppression, a common destiny rather than a common history, shared values rather than shared interests, and a mutual commitment to social justice rather than being mutually alienated from the mainstream.
The central pillar of the black community has always been its faith. The civil rights movement, far from simply being a political response to injustice and oppression, was a religious movement, conceived in churches, led by ministers and marched to the sounds of old "Negro spirituals."
The soldiers of the civil rights movement were fueled by faith and sustained by sacrifice. That is the secret of why they succeeded. Other liberation movements either succumbed to the battling egos of their leaders or simply replaced one form of oppression with another: Czar Nicholas with Lenin and Stalin, Battista with Fidel Castro, white-ruled Rhodesia for Mugabe-controlled Zimbabwe.
But the leaders of the civil rights movement, being people of deep faith and spiritual conviction, exhibited the humility of putting the interest of the people before their own lust for power. Walter Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth could easily have begrudged Martin Luther King Jr. his high profile, and King certainly wanted more for himself than to die on a lonely balcony in a second-rate motel in Memphis. But since their objective was to lead God’s children into a promised land of equal rights and human dignity, they put the people before their egos and placed reconciliation with the white man ahead of fratricidal civil war.
The same chains of slavery that bound the Jews in ancient Egypt and the blacks in the New World may have imprisoned their bodies, but liberated their spirit. Those chains taught the Jews and blacks, above all else, to rely on God for their salvation rather than on any professed human liberator, be he as righteous as Moses or as determined as Lincoln. Both became nations to whom faith was endemic and sustaining.
For most people, religion teaches them how to gain entry into the afterlife, how to avoid hell. For blacks and Jews, religion taught them to find hope and comfort in this life so that their earthly existence could transcend hell. Other religions kept the faithful oppressed by instructing them in the divine right of kings. But Jews and blacks taught that no man was born subject to another, for all men were princes.
Other people’s religion taught them to accept their suffering in this world because the comforts of paradise would more than compensate. But the faith of Jews and blacks inspired them to challenge existing prejudice because man was not born to suffer. Man dare not await the paradise of Eden. His highest obligation is to create heaven on earth.
As a Jew, my attachment to King’s speeches has little to do with the injustice of segregation, to which I was thankfully never subject, and everything to do with a modern preacher who brought the ancient Hebrew prophets to life. While studying at yeshiva I related to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah as characters in a book. But through King I related to them as living figures who embolden and animate the opponents of injustice. Like Moses, King never reached the promised land but found redemption in a life of service over adventure, and righteousness over recognition.
That the Jewish and black communities are distinguished by their attachment to their faith is further evidenced by the unique problems faced by each upon the abandonment of that faith. The Jewish break with the ritualistic tradition has led to an indulgent materialism. Assimilation has led to a repugnant self-loathing, a sad attempt to erase distinctive Jewish characteristics, and a pathetic attempt to blend into the mainstream. For many in the black community, a loss of the anchor of faith has led to a breakdown in familial and social bonds, a pop and music culture that glorifies violence and feeds on misogyny, and an awkward desire to neutralize distinctive black characteristics in an effort to be more accepted.
Today Jews and blacks need each other more than ever before. The segregation enemy of the past might be behind them. But an even more daunting enemy looms ahead, namely, acceptance.
I hope and trust that the Jewish community of New Jersey will reciprocate to Cory the incredible love that he has always shown us. Cory is one of the great bridge-builders of our time.