I have always had a close relationship with the African-American community.
It started as a boy when my mother, pained in a troubled marriage, befriended an African-American woman at the bank where she worked. We played with her children and got to know her family. It grew with my exposure as a teenager to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. A lover of great oratory, I was astonished at the ability of one man to restore America to her founding ideals through the power of the spoken word alone. It reached a crescendo with my friendship with Cory Booker, a young African-American Rhodes scholar at Oxford where I served as rabbi. Cory and I became like brothers, and he eventually served as president of our L’Chaim student society, consisting of 5,000 Jewish and non-Jewish members. Later, I would arrange and accompany the Rev. Al Sharpton on his visit to Israel in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and would even lose my popular radio show in Utah when I used its 50 thousand watts to help permanently settle African-American evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in the whitest state in the union (the story is told in the documentary “Desert Bayou”).
Truth regardless of consequences I say this not to establish my credentials but to be self-critical. How is it that I live in a city that seems so segregated between white and black but have not done more to foster closer ties between the two? True, I am only a citizen of Englewood and have, until recently, never led a congregation. But laypeople carry the same responsibility.
Visitors to Englewood would be astonished to see how naturally divided the city seems, with the railway tracks posing an almost tangible border between the two segments. The white community consists of many Orthodox Jewish families who passionately embrace the most cherished of all Jewish beliefs: that humans are all equal brothers, created in the princely image of a loving God. While there are various ethnicities, there is only one race, the human race. The same belief is shared, of course, by the mostly Christian African-American community. Yet, the interaction between the two communities seems inadequate at best, virtually non-existent at worst.
Some would say it’s no big deal. At least we all tolerate each other.
But tolerance is a repugnant word, an insulting disposition, insinuating as it does that we can at best stomach each other rather than be enriched by difference.
Blacks and Jews especially have always had common cause resulting from shared faith rather than 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 was largely 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. Walter Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth could easily have begrudged King his high profile, and King could have 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 equal opportunity, they put the people before their egos and placed reconciliation with whites 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 spirits. Those chains taught 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 steadfast as Lincoln.
Other religions kept the faithful down 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 born children of the King of Kings and hence were all princes.
Other people’s religions taught them to accept their suffering in this world because the comforts of paradise would more than compensate. But the faith of Jews and African-Americans inspired them to challenge existing prejudices because man’s highest obligation is to create heaven here on earth.
As a Jew, my attachment to King’s speeches has less to do with the injustice of segregation, to which I was thankfully never subjected, and everything to do with a modern preacher who brought the ancient Hebrew prophets to life. King used the Bible as a field manual in the never-ending campaign for the human dignity of all of God’s children: “Let justice roll down like water, righteousness like a mighty spring.” Like Moses, King never reached the promised land. But he restored America’s luster as a shining city on a hill.
Englewood, given its large population of Jewish and African-American residents, has the capacity to emerge as an arena inspiring unity and brotherhood that beckons other communities around our nation to follow. And it is in the pursuit of this idea that this Monday night, Dec. 20, at 7 p.m., I am joining the Rev. Charles Gilmore Jr. at the Westside Presbyterian Church in Englewood to organize a public discussion called “Raising Spiritual Children in an Increasingly Material Age,” a conversation vitally important especially around the time of Chanukah and Christmas, where spiritual light is often replaced by electric lights and the divine presence by material presents.
It is my deep hope that the Jewish community will attend in strong numbers.