Keeping the Dream Alive

Praying with your feet Heschel MLK

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walk together for Civil Rights.

“No,” said my High School Administration. “No, we have never done it that way”; “No, it would be too complicated”; “No, everyone is too busy!” So

there was a certain amount of fear (of reprisal) as we ignored protocol and approached the headmaster’s office at our boarding school in Pennsylvania. We were three friends not yet 16 years old: one African-American, one Puerto-Rican, and one Jew (me).

We were poised to demand that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should not just be a regular day of school, but rather a special day devoted to Dr. King’s ideals, through civil rights speakers and inspiration activities designed to promote contemporary social justice. To our headmaster’s credit, he listened to our proposal, thought for a long moment, and then said, “Okay, on the condition that the students do the work to make it a success”. And with that, a MLK commemorative day was established at our school, which still occurs annually more than 20 years later. Indeed, January 15 is MLK Jr.’s birthday. Across the United States, we pause to remember all that Dr. King helped America achieve through civil rights and civil disobedience, and to gird ourselves for the work that we know still needs to be done.

We Jews remember Dr. King as an essential personality who helped move our country out of a metaphorical “Egypt”, and towards a metaphorical “Promised Land” where “children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.1” In the 1960s, the Jewish community had a close relationship with Dr. King, and hundreds of rabbis and Jews everywhere stood with Dr. King at every major juncture from St. Augustine, Florida to Washington, D.C. Many of our people realized that the African-American plight was our own, and so, it was our moral imperative to march, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and, in some cases, even go to jail in order to promote justice.

Many times, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked, “Why did you march with Reverend King?” To which, he famously replied, “I was praying with my feet.” From the midwives Shifra and Puah who defied Pharaoh’s immoral decree, to Moses speaking truth to power, to Judah Maccabee’s fight for the freedom to be different; we, as Jews, have a legacy of promoting justice in the world, even at the risk of great personal cost. In this spirit, I find it interesting that the modern State of Israel is the only country outside of the United States that commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day annually with a special session in parliament.

By doing this, Israel, and Jews everywhere, make the statement that we embrace Dr. King’s values of hope and peaceful co-existence between neighbors who are different. As we enter into this secular New Year, let us keep Dr. King’s dream alive, and continue to do our part to make our world the righteous place that we pray it has the potential to be.

Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.

1 “I Have a Dream” speech

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