Freedom service
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Freedom service

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Cantor Leonard Mandel, left, Rev. Glenn Scheyhing, and Rabbi Debra Orenstein

We must keep listening to the words of our great leaders.

Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, knows that, and so does the clergy council in neighboring Westwood.

So, on the Shabbat before our observance of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, Rabbi Orenstein said that both his words and Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s were heard.

It is fitting that they should be heard together.

Rabbi Heschel, who was born on January 11, 1907, died on December 23, 1972; given the vagaries of the Jewish year, his yarzheit usually falls in January, close to Dr. King’s birthday. It also was in January when the two leaders first met and became friends, 51 years ago, at a conference on religion and race in Chicago. Rabbi Heschel joined Dr. King on the front lines of the civil rights movement, and Dr. King joined Rabbi Heschel in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. There are iconic photographs that show the two spiritual leaders together on civil rights marches, mostly in the deep South.

This was the fourth time B’nai Israel had participated in the service, and the second consecutive year it hosted a Shabbat service including many faith communities. It is also the second year the Westwood area’s clergy council officially co-sponsored the service.

“I invited them to come to our synagogue in the spirit of interfaith participation, so that we could honor the lives and the legacies of King and Heschel,” Rabbi Orenstein said. Being together with members of area churches “brought everybody together and showed our common commitment towards a true sense of brotherhood and sisterhood,” she added.

The shul’s Cantor Leonard Mandel adapted some of the Shabbat liturgy to the melodies of African American spirituals – including Shalom Aleichem to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and Lecha Dodi to “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.” The message was both beautiful and allowed voices representing different faiths to ring out in unison.

In other years, choirs from different churches lead prayers. This year, a chorus was made up of singers from two area churches and B’nai Israel.

Rabbi Orenstein said that it was particularly emotional when the choir sang “Sabbath Prayer” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” It also sang the Aleinu to the melody of “Rise and Shine and Give God Your Glory.”

“It was very lovely,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “When we came to the final benediction, that’s we sang the Sabbath Prayer. I explained that we bless our boys by saying ‘may you be like Ephraim and Menashe,’ because after the strife between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers, these two brothers finally act with brotherly love. We added ‘May you be like Martin and Abraham.'”

“We’ve gotten amazing feedback,” she added. “At the Oneg Shabbat, people were getting to know one another.”

A prayer commemorating the life of the South African leader Nelson Mandela was read at the service. It included this line: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

Rev. Alex Barbieto of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Westwood began the Ma’ariv prayer in English, and Cantor Mandel read the Hebrew for the prayer’s last two lines.

Then Father Barbieto quoted Rabbi Heschel: “Who is worthy to be present at the constant unfolding of time? Amidst the meditation of mountains, the humility of flowers – wiser than all alphabets – clouds that die constantly for the sake of His glory, we are hating, hunting, hurting.

“Suddenly, we feel ashamed of our clashes and complaints in the face of the tacit glory in nature. It is so embarrassing to live. How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings. Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”

Cantor Mandel followed by quoting Dr. King: “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearance of the world, there is a benign power.”

Rabbi Orenstein divided the congregation in half for a responsive reading, as if the two men were talking to each other. One side of the room read a quote from Rev. King, then the other side responded with a quote from Rabbi Heschel. It ended with both sides saying “God is one” in unison.

The Rev. Thomas Pranschke, president of the Westwood Area Clergy Council, spoke to the assembled congregants, and then the Rev. Glenn Scheyhing of the United Methodist Church in Westwood gave the main sermon. His theme came from the Methodist Book of Discipline: “All persons are of sacred worth.” Movingly, he applied that teaching to King and Rabbi Heschel and to his own experiences.

The service included “We Shall Overcome” in English and Hebrew.

Rabbi Orenstein said that as moving as the evening was, its highlight might have been when a young newly engaged couple came to her afterward and told her that a Shabbat service such as this one was why they joined the congregation.

Rabbi Orenstein also has a personal connection to Rabbi Heschel. Her late father, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, was Rabbi Heschel’s secretary. She grew up on Heschel’s words.

“When Heschel talked about freedom, he calls it a great burden that God has given to human kind,” she said. “It’s not just ‘I’m free to do what I want.’ How are you going to use your freedom?

“Just reading the words of King and Heschel is amazing. They had the ability to inspire people. And just getting together and reciting their words helps us build the kind of ecumenical partnership they had. It supports a sense of mission to continue living out their legacy.”

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