This past week we observed the celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I was wondering how many of us were noticing – or if the holiday had become just another chance to get a day off from school, a vacation, courtesy of a hero who is no longer with us.  Some annual national observances don’t necessarily rouse enthusiasm. How often do we really celebrate the life of George Washington on his “birthday”?  Of course, there is a difference – many of us lived through the civil rights movement and remember the trauma of MLK’s assassination.  Some of us remain involved in causes that Dr. King fought for.  Yet, how can we keep his memory alive in our day, doing honor to the message of the man? That’s the value of ritual; it facilitates a heart/mind/soul connection to the values and lessons that are represented by the annual celebration.

I feel very fortunate to live and work in communities that take the observance of Martin Luther King Day seriously.  I have gravitated to the program in Summit, where our congregation is located.  The Summit Interfaith Council shapes a wonderful interfaith community.  The awe-inspiring day of programming in honor of the dream of Dr. King is  capped off by the Martin Luther King commemorative worship service held annually at Fountain Baptist Church.  I had the privilege of offering the invocation at the service.

The service was mesmerizing; with beautiful, engaging music that brought together the voices of the congregation in heartfelt unity.  Here was the presence of God; the experience of holiness was palpable to me. Raising our voices together, I felt a bond with the whole congregation.

The speaker this year was an acclaimed African American historian, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who spoke passionately and thoughtfully about the importance of knowing and recalling historical context as we face the challenges of racism. As he recounted the painful experience of African Americans in narrative and number, we were gripped by the reminder of why Dr. King’s work was and is still so essential. Justice calls for honest reflection.  Change requires full understanding of the place from which we are standing.

Sitting on the bima (pulpit) with fellow clergy participants, facing the congregation, I watched the faces of the community as the grim details of their history were recounted. I felt the depth of sorrow that radiated through the room.  It struck me as I listened to the depressing and painful reflections of the experience of African Americans that I know — I  empathize with what they are feeling. I suddenly felt, quite viscerally, that as a Jew I could identify with the tragedy of their suffering. We too have suffered at the hands of those whose ignorance and hatred seemed boundless. I felt attached to this community in a bond of sorrow, and a passion for justice.

As we closed by singing “We Shall Overcome,” we locked hands, arms crossed in front of us, linking us tightly. On one side of me was the pastor of a local AME church, a friend whom I have come to greatly admire in the three years I’ve been part of the Summit Interfaith Council. We were flanked by other Christian clergy, Dr. Muhammad, Pastor Sanders of the host church, and another community rabbi.  We sang and swayed, and tears came to my eyes – everything seemed possible in that moment.  If we kept our hearts open and our minds focused (as the speaker exhorted), perhaps we really could overcome!

How meaningful that just this week we observed the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of President Kennedy. His famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” continue to call us to attention. It’s worth re-reading the full speech, which intones, “Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” – a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. “

We were blessed by great and inspired leaders in that fateful decade of the 1960’s. But their lives were cut short. Dr. Martin Luther King’s work won’t be complete if our generation does not own it now.  How can we keep the dream alive? How can we nurture the bond of mutuality between our communities?  We each have to ask ourselves these questions.

Our nation is gripped with too much hostility and division – and once again the ugliness of racism is given voice in the debates over immigration and rhetoric regarding our president.  Will we stand by idly? As Jews, we simply can’t. As American we simply mustn’t. As human beings we must do better.  I hope that in this year we will link arms and make progress on fulfilling the dream.