Once again this year, Rabbi Daniel Fridman, who leads the Jewish Center of Teaneck, has invited the community to a celebration in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rabbi Fridman clearly is passionate about preserving Dr. King’s legacy, and the communitywide gathering planned for January 13 is meant to further that goal.
“Last year we invited Theodora Lacey” — an American civil rights activist and educator who fought for voting rights and fair housing, and helped lead the effort to integrate schools in New Jersey, Rabbi Fridman said. “She helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, and Dr. King was the pastor of her church, hired by her father. Their youth leader was Rosa Parks.”
The crowd and the shul last year was both large and diverse. Rabbi Fridman hopes that this year’s meeting, featuring New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, will draw a large crowd as well. (Mr. Grewal is the first Sikh-American Attorney General in United States history.)
Rabbi Fridman is pleased that the celebration truly will be communitywide. While the list of sponsoring synagogues and community organizations still was in formation at press time, it included at least 10 shuls as well as the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Members of the broader Teaneck community, “the mayor, the town council, the superintendent, and the board of education,” will be there as well, he said.
Perhaps most important, it will include all those who “cherish the dignity of every human being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God,” Rabbi Fridman said. “Discrimination is an affront to the basic sense of godliness. It’s meaningful that this is a communitywide event. I’m glad we can stand together to uphold the notion that someone should not suffer discrimination because of race or religion.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day “comes down to one line — ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” words Dr. King wrote while he was in jail in Birmingham, Rabbi Fridman continued. Although the words had a specific meaning in their historical context, they also have “universal lessons and implications. Dr. King did not say that African Americans deserve x, y, and z because of their color, but because they’re human beings.” You can’t truly value King’s words if you don’t value the dignity of all people.
“We have to constantly work on this,” he said. “We always have to be actively engaged.” He hopes that people who come to the celebration will be “energized to realize that when they see injustice, they should speak out against it [and] strive for a greater sense of honoring the dignity of the other person.” This can be done in large ways or small, “even with something like engaging in a discussion where there is disagreement and honoring that disagreement — not allowing things to devolve into polarizing rhetoric.” Dr. King’s policy of civil disobedience reflected that concept, he said.
He feels strongly about the issue because he is a person of faith, Rabbi Fridman said. “At the core of my faith in God is that God is manifest in people, in human beings, who are created in the image of God. This makes demands of him when he interacts with anyone.” He noted that while in principle Dr. King’s words should resonate equally with all people, “in our own history, we’re not strangers to bigotry or discrimination. We’ve drunk from a bitter chalice and have a unique sensitivity.
“The Torah speaks on dozens of occasions about how our experience of historical suffering should sensitize us to the plight of the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. It has a particular historical resonance.”
Because of Mr. Grewal’s unique attainment, he in particular “is a living legacy of Dr. King in this country. The civil rights movement is not over. We have to constantly expand opportunities in this country. When the country is truly color blind, it will be an important moment for everyone to celebrate — an achievement for America and for our society. The Attorney General brings a unique pride to his community, but we should see this as something we should all be proud of.”
While Attorney General Grewal will tell something of his own story, he will focus more on how that experience helped him formulate his goals, as reflected in the work of his office.
“I’ll touch on my personal experience a bit in dealing with injustice and how it shaped my passion” to ensure that other communities be protected from discrimination, Mr. Grewal said. “But a more important focus will be on how our office is working to promote social, racial, economic, and even environmental justice.”
What does Martin Luther King Jr. Day mean to the state’s chief legal officer? “To me, it’s a reminder that our fight for justice is still continuing. It’s a particularly timely reminder given what’s coming out of Washington. There’s a lot more work to be done. This is best done by following Dr. King’s example.”
Does he think that Dr. King’s voice would be heard today, as it would have to compete with the loud voices bombarding us in this political environment? “I would be listening,” Mr. Grewal said. “And based on what I hear, people would be listening and watching intently. That’s why we look at his example.”
Since Mr. Grewal took office in January last year, the Attorney General’s office has focused on several initiatives targeted to relations between law enforcement and the wider community. Last November, his office issued the Immigrant Trust Directive, clarifying the role of state law enforcement in relation to federal civil immigration law.
“We don’t participate,” he said; the role of state law enforcement authorities is to enforce the state’s criminal law. “The activities ICE” — that’s the federal agency whose full name is Immigration and Customs Enforcement — “was engaging in were causing fear in our immigrant communities,” preventing them from coming forward to report crimes. “We want to show them we’re here to protect them.” This, he said, fits in well with the teachings of Dr. King.
He pointed also to community outreach efforts “to promote understanding between law enforcement and the community.” His 21-21 project calls upon the state’s 21 county prosecutors to organize quarterly public events to discuss issues relevant to community policing in the 21st century.
Mr. Grewal said he hopes the audience will leave with the feeling that while there is a great deal of negativity coming from Washington, “where the president discusses law and order in terms of fear of minorities and the other, we’re taking a different approach in New Jersey. You can be pro-community, pro-law, and pro-immigration, building a model the rest of the country can look to.”
Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, who leads Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom — another sponsor of the event — said that Martin Luther King Jr. Day “is a day to celebrate the accomplishment of this extraordinary American and understand that the work he cared so deeply about, civil rights and equal rights, is incomplete. It’s been left to the next generation to pick up his mantle and continue his work.”
Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. “I think about what he said the night before about having been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land, but that he might not be able to get there,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “He’s paraphrasing the ending of Deuteronomy. Just like Moses, who saw the land of Israel but couldn’t cross over to the other side. I think about the unfinished work. It’s a day to celebrate our common humanity and understand that the work is incomplete.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said that Dr. King was a person “who wanted the African American community to claim its part of the American dream. Not to ruin the dream, but to enlarge it so they could be part of it. That’s such an incredibly important part of what it means to be an American. We say we love our country because we claim that the dream is open to all people, regardless of race, color, or creed. But I worry that this is less true than we want it to be.
“If Dr. King was still here, he’d still be fighting the good fight.”
Rabbi Pitkowsky said he thinks the upcoming meeting is important, and he is grateful to Rabbi Fridman for organizing it. “Although there are issues that divide the community, whether the Jewish community or the Bergen County community, there are also issues that bring us together, that we stand united to fight for,” he said.
“I think the community needs to come together not only in times of great sorrow or to remember the past, but in order for us to remember people who continue to inspire us and push us to create a better future. For me, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time to think not only about his life but also the legacy he leaves and look around at the community and understand that we, as Mahatma Gandhi said, need to ‘be the change that you wish to see in the world.’ We should all want our country to be a place where anyone can succeed based on the merits of their character and accomplishments.”
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, who heads Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom — another program sponsor — said, “I always try to speak on the Shabbat before Martin Luther King Jr. weekend on some topic related to the work, life, or legacy of Dr. King.” That’s because the civil rights leader worked to “create a more just society and a better America, more in touch with its founding ideals. Our citizens believe in that and want to see it happen.” Many members of the Jewish community have worked hard toward the same end, fighting racism and prejudice and seeking to ensure more equality, he said.
Rabbi Helfgot mentioned the special relationship between Dr. King’s movement and the Jewish community, “given that so much of the rhetoric of civil rights and of Dr. King is rooted in biblical themes. His famous speeches use biblical imagery from Exodus and the prophets, and so much of the movement was inspired by the biblical notions of justice and recognizing the dignity of all human beings.” Dr. King was a profoundly religious leader, who “not only spoke to secular ideals like the pursuit of freedom but also to the deepest beliefs and values of our country as rooted in Judeo-Christian ethics,” Rabbi Helfgot said
He noted that for many people, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is used “as a day of chesed.” (In 1994, Congress designated Martin Luther King Jr. Jr. Day as a national day of service.) This is a “positive thing, to be able to give a push for people to get involved.” His synagogue tries to make its members aware of service programs going on in the community, he added.
How would Rabbi Helfgot characterize Dr. King’s message? “The message is that unfortunately we live in a polarized age,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with healthy debate, but sometimes that rancor and polarization have led to expressions of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. On many sides of the political debate, we’re not treating each other with dignity and respect.
“Part of the democratic game is to play by the rules. As religious people, we recognize a spark of divinity in every human being. We need to unite — not just after Pittsburgh or Charlottesville — but on a regular basis, to reaffirm those values.”
Who: New Jersey State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal
What: Will speak at the second annual community commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Where: At the Jewish Center of Teaneck, 70 Stirling Place
When: On Sunday, January 13, at 8 p.m.
Sponsored by: Many local synagogues
For more information: Go to www.jcot.org.
Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
These local organizations are also paying tribute to Dr. King:
Friday January 18
Rabbi emeritus Israel S. Dresner honors the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during services at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, 7:30 p.m. Rabbi Dresner was a prominent participant in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and was close to Dr. King. President Barack Obama honored Rabbi Dresner at the White House in 2013 for the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. 950 Preakness Ave. (973) 595-6565 or www.templebethtikvahnj.org.
Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson invites members of all faiths to its annual “Freedom Shabbat” service honoring the lives and messages of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, 7:30 p.m. Rabbi Debra Orenstein will lead the service with participation of local clergy members. Coffee, desserts, and informal conversation will follow. On Saturday, there will a “Torah Town Hall” service as part of the Shabbat morning interactive Torah discussion on the legacies of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King. 10 a.m. 53 Palisade Ave. (201) 265-2272 or www.bisrael.com.
Friday January 25
Temple Beth Sholom in New City, N.Y., will host members and the choir of the Berea Seventh-Day Adventist Church at its special annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat service, 7:30 p.m. 228 New Hempstead Road. (845) 638-0770 or www.tbsrockland.org.