Jews Honor MLK Day Through Social Action

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The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Peter Pettus/Library of Congress
The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Peter Pettus/Library of Congress

The Jewish community is no stranger to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Statistically, Jewish activists represented a large minority group who participated in the civil rights movement.

According to MyJewishLearning.com, “as many as 90 percent of the civil rights lawyers in Mississippi were Jewish” in the 1960s, and Jews also made up about 30 percent of white volunteers who rode freedom buses to the South and protested segregated establishments.


Many famously marched with Martin Luther King Jr. on Selma, Ala., in 1965, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Additionally, Jews made up half of the younger demographic who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 — a campaign to register as many African-American voters as possible — according to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

King’s memory has often been honored by worship ceremonies and days of community service by many different groups, but the significance behind them has a deeper meaning.

At Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., Jan. 13 at 8 p.m., a unity choir made up of church and synagogue singers will honor King through song.

More than 80 people compose the choir, who will also sing at New Hope Temple Baptist Church in Metuchen, N.J., on Jan. 15 at 3:30 p.m.

Cantor Anita Hochman from M’kor Shalom, one of three choir directors, said this unity concert has been going on for 14 years.

The choir originated from a partnership between M’kor Shalom and Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church in Camden, N.J., and has since expanded to “all kinds of people who want to be a part of us.”

“We sing a lot of really uplifting, powerful music that literally lifts people out of their seats, and there’s clapping and singing along. We sing gospel music, we sing songs in Hebrew, we sing spirituals. We share the commonality of our faith through music,” she said.

More than 800 people attend each year, including several local mayors and dignitaries.

“We are the place to be the Friday night of Martin Luther King weekend for our community and beyond,” she said. “The friendships that have been formed would probably not have happened any other way were it not for the music and the coming together of various types of communities.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Photo courtesy of Nobel Foundation
Martin Luther King Jr. Photo courtesy of Nobel Foundation

MLK Day may not be on the Jewish calendar, but Hochman said there’s a lot of Jewishness about the celebration of his life.

“His life represented lifting people up and the coming together of all faiths, honoring each other. His message was for everyone,” she said. “The spirit of his voice rings throughout everything that we share together.”

People usually walk out of the service singing and feeling joyful, signifying unity, she said.

“It’s part of the dream; these moments that we share together are a slice of what King dreamed about and spoke of,” Hochman said. “We need the power of his vision as much as ever before.”

Rabbi Seth Goren, executive director of Repair the World Philadelphia, said they will have events all throughout the weekend.

They will host two “Turn the Tables” dinners that focus on discussing racial injustice Jan. 13, the first at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel from 6 to 9 p.m. and the second at the Gershman Y from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

“It’s a chance for people to explore racial injustice both in an abstract sense and also what it means for them today in Philadelphia,” Goren said.

There will also be more than 20 volunteer opportunities from Jan. 13 through 16, ranging from doing farm work with Philly Farm Crew and sorting clothing for Our Closet to making cards for sick children and gardening and landscaping.

“The values that the holiday embraces really resonates with Jewish tradition: the idea of racial equality, the idea of all of humanity being created in God’s image, the idea of making sure that we’re taking care of people who are more vulnerable,” Goren said. “I would hope people would take away a sense of how to be involved in their communities on a regular basis and on days that extend beyond MLK Day.”

 King at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Rowland Scherman/National Archives and Records Administration
King at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C.
Rowland Scherman/National Archives and Records Administration

At La Salle University on Jan. 16, the sixth annual MLK Interfaith Service will be held in Founders’ Hall at 4:30 p.m.

This year’s theme is “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”  

La Salle President Colleen Hanycz will speak, as well as a keynote address by state Rep. Joanna McClinton and sermons from representatives of the Jewish, Muslim and Latter-day Saints communities.

Michael Perice, rabbinic associate for the Kristol Center for Jewish Life at the University of Delaware Hillel, will represent the Jewish community at this service for the second time.

“Martin Luther King Day and a day of service in honor of Martin Luther King Day is the most Jewish non-religious holiday in our calendar,” he said. “For Jews and the Jewish community, I think it is really important because of our connection to the civil rights movement and our connection to tikkun olam and social justice.”

Last year, he spoke about the connections that Jews and African-Americans share as “minorities in America.”

“Where Jews were able to find social mobility and really progress in American society, many African-Americans have not,” he said. “I wanted to stand there in solidarity with people of all different faiths and backgrounds and let them know that the Jewish community stands with you.”

These days, he pointed out, Jews also need support from other minorities.

“That’s how much has changed in the last year,” he noted.

His goal is to speak of friendship and commitment and say that “the Jewish community really needs the support now of the African-American Muslim communities, that anti-Semitism is severely on the rise in America, and we need help in stemming the tides.”

For Jews, Perice said this day is a way to honor King, who was not only a leader but a “modern-day prophet.”

“Jews have had a long history of civil rights in America before the ’60s, but it was really Martin Luther King who really solidified the bond between the Jewish and African-American communities,” he said.

He hopes people will feel like they have a friend in the Jewish community.

“We know as Jews what it’s like to be a minority. We know what it’s like to be an oppressed group,” he said. “Luckily in America, we’ve had the opportunity to really thrive and do well and do amazing things. We hope to lift up our partners in that same endeavor.”

For more events throughout the weekend, check the community calendar.

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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