Throughout Black History Month, people across the U.S. commemorate the achievements of African Americans. Notably those of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are among the most recognized. He created close alliances with people of diverse backgrounds, including Jews. When taking a closer look, Black and Jewish communities in America have endured similar experiences with facing hatred and bigotry.
King relied heavily on the Jewish narrative to inspire his followers. He leaned on Moses as a spiritual figure and an inspiration for liberation. Many of King’s speeches and writings alluded to the Bible and values that appealed to Jews, allowing his messages to resonate with people from all faiths. Since the Jewish community understands the struggle of oppression, they were inclined to support the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Respected Jewish leaders like Rabbi Abraham Heschel saw the injustices religious and racial minorites faced. Heschel believed in the seamless connection between the Jewish tradition and social activism, so he became a strong advocate of the Civil Rights Movement and walked alongside King during the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama. The desire for freedom and reform brought the two leaders together, and inspired Jews and Blacks to fight for change. King and Heschel spoke from a religious place to speak out against injustice and promote change. Something profound about their relationship (more a friendship) was that both came from different walks of life but shared values that tied them and their communities together.
In one of King’s last speeches, he imagines himself as Moses at the end of the Torah when Moses goes up to a mountain looking over the promised land. King describes how he sees the promised land, which represents liberation, but recognizes that he might not get there during his lifetime. He adds that if people push one another, they can in fact go after that dream.
“We all come from different commmunties – when we speak of values, not labels – it doesn’t matter what's on the outside because we can share values,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky, who leads a congregation in Montgomery County, Maryland.
I recently spoke to Rabbi Topolosky about King and Heschel because I was curious to know more about the unique relationship between the two gentlemen. I learned that these leaders challenged the social norms and expectations of the time to show how different communities can learn from each other's experiences and support a common cause.
It’s important to know where we came from and acknowledge past events even if difficult to discuss. Conversation and learning can lead to change. Rabbi Topolosky along with other Rabbis from across the country are traveling to Alabama to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement. The group will visit historical places like Selma and Montgomery to experience and learn more about the struggle for civil rights and its impact on generations that followed. The Rabbis will return to their communities to share what they learned and inspire their congregants to be agents of change. People of all backgrounds need to continue conversations because everyone is capable of making a difference in the world.
On that note, going back to where this article started: Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King are reminders that we don’t have to work alone in our pursuit for change.
Lauren Frank is a BBG from NRE: DC Council who loves music and spending time with friends.
All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.
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