Thank you to Deacon Phyllis Teat and Reverend Lillian Gail Moore for inviting me to speak tonight, and to Susan Millner and Jeanlu Ryersbach for such a loving introduction. I feel very honored and humbled to have the opportunity to reflect on the legacy that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bequeathed all of us and to share my thoughts with you.
I want to dedicate my words tonight to my three beautiful, strong daughters, two of whom were born the day after Martin Luther King Day three years ago. This auspicious weekend, every year, is always a women’s march in my house.
My remarks tonight are also given in memory of my friend Jerry Rabinowitz, who was brutally murdered along with 10 other innocent souls at Congregation Tree of Life on October 27, 2018 by a violent anti-Semitic white supremacist.
There is so much I want to say, so much I feel… Jerry was a beautiful light, extinguished without mercy. It is shocking that such hate and anger exists against someone who treasured softness and goodness, and who lived it every day of his life. Jerry was the kind of person who regularly set up for services before others came in, who as a doctor recognized the dignity in each one of his patients. In the 1980s he held the hands of his AIDS patients. After he died, his friends and community, including myself, found out many amazing things he had done because he never sought recognition for his everyday kindnesses or accomplishments.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr lived a much more public, pulpit centered, in the spotlight, Nobel peace prize winner, kind of life than Jerry, but it appears that they were equally vulnerable to the murderous violence that hate begets. And I am sorry to say it, but it is getting worse out there. I’m not sure if it is the times we live in, or perhaps because I’m a mother to young children, or because I am a rabbi, but I am really feeling the so-called “ten plagues” of our society:
-the plague of poisoned water and absence of nutritious, affordable food for all
-the plague of people dying because they are avoiding the expense of seeing a doctor or getting medication
-the plague of addiction
-the plague of fear and demonization of foreigners and outsiders and those look or behave differently
-the plague of being silenced, disbelieved and shamed
-the plague of depression and isolation
-the plague of infighting and division within movements, fracturing of a shared vision
-the plague of hatred and violence
-the plague of lack of leadership
-the plague of human complacency and denial in the face of rising waters and temperatures.
There are actually more than ten – but I will leave it there.
We need Dr. King’s full-throated message of racial and economic equality, as well as basic human decency and his vision of the Beloved Community now more than ever. We are gasping for it.
These past weeks, Jews around the world have been rereading the story of our liberation from Egyptian slavery. And it began with a cry. In our narrowness of spirit, the Israelites could not bear it anymore, and they cried out from their immense burden. And God heard their cry. The whole premise of the Exodus story is that God hears our cries and, like a parent, responds fiercely.
Oh God of mercy, hear us as we cry out to You today! Help us carry our burdens more lightly, and share with us a vision of your peace. Encourage us to see what must be done, and rouse us.
We are suffering from more unabashed and openly expressed hatred, more racism, more anti-Semitism. And it is no coincidence – from my vantage point, I see that the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the past few years strongly correlates with the deadly uptick in all forms of racism and bigotry. African-Americans remain the most frequent victims of hate crimes in the U.S.; Jews are the most common religious group so targeted. But rises in recent years of hate crimes targeting Muslims, Sikhs, LGBTQ, and other minority communities have become commonplace.
Truly, when the safety of one minority group is threatened, all of us are in danger. The irony here is that hate, ultimately, is indiscriminate.
It is worth sharing King eloquent, prescient words at this point. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written 56 years ago, he wrote these words, which are truer today than ever: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
We have got to turn this around.
Let us make justice a threat to injustice everywhere.
Let us make love inescapable, let us make love our single garment of destiny.
We cannot afford to see anyone outside the bounds of this love.
Let our love be indiscriminate.
If King’s words are true, then let us commit to love because it will surely affect us all, if not directly, then indirectly.
I will be specific: I have been on the receiving end of this boundless love, and it has been transformative. After the Pittsburgh shooting, this community responded with an outpouring of love – towards me, towards my synagogue and to the Jewish community as a whole. Strangers were giving me hugs, and I know I was not alone. At our synagogue Shabbat dinner the following weekend, we were joined by people of so many faiths – Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and
people of no faith who wanted to express their support. It was incredibly moving, humbling, and healing.
And I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who reached out in support and kindness.
And that is what we need to do for one another – show up. Show up in a mosque to stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer, show up at a funeral for someone you didn’t know personally but was somebody’s baby, show up at a vigil for victims up gun violence regardless of how you feel about the Second Amendment, show up at an AME church no matter what color skin you have. We need to cross those barriers, even though it may feel awkward or uncomfortable at first. Not because those differences are not real – we must not be blind to the very real differences between us that impact our everyday lived reality. But if we stay only in our own houses, we will never know and appreciate one another’s uniquenesses, and we will never fully grasp our interconnectedness and shared vulnerability.
In May, when a group of people from Kol Emet decided to go to a local mosque to stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters whose families were directly impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the so-called “Muslim ban,” some others in my congregation thought it was crazy. (Luckily they didn’t tell me until much later!) Because, you see, previously, when Jews were victims of anti-Semitic attacks, it was rare for anyone to stand with us or around us. But I had gotten the idea from another synagogue in New York City that has offered flowers and support to Muslim worshippers entering for Friday prayers EVERY week for the past TWO years.
And so, when those same Muslims who we stood with at their mosque showed up at our synagogue the week after Pittsburgh, it was humbling. I was at a loss for words. We knew we were not alone. It gave me courage, strength, healing and hope.
You see, the hope that I see is the flow from deep networks of interconnectedness with our neighbors of many faiths and backgrounds today. What happened here in Bucks County in response to the attack in Pittsburgh was replicated all across the North America; thousands of communities organized multi-faith vigils. Such acts of solidarity are more than random acts of kindness. They are INTENTIONAL acts of kindness, and they reflect deep connectivity among our faith communities that has been built over many decades.
When we and they show up for each other as a normal part of our civic lives and religious responsibility, when we work together to confront the explosions of hate crimes and hate rhetoric, we are modeling our vision for America.
And that vision began with King. He is the one who said that it is critical and fundamental for us to show up for one another. In that same letter from the Birmingham jail – he wrote this in jail, folks! – he continues, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”
Standing together doesn’t mean you always agree with one another – indeed sometimes these alliances can be painful, or at least inconvenient. We are diverse, we are not always going to agree on how we get to the Promised Land– but we know that we need one another to get there. We must always keep the vision first. We live in a time where there is no one visionary leader like Moses or Miriam or Dr. King to carry us out of oppression – we each must carry one
another’s burden and lift each other up. We must find ways we each can lead.
With this realization, after Pittsburgh, I decided to throw my passion and energy into interfaith justice work. I, along with fellow clergy across Lower
Bucks, began a local chapter of POWER: interfaith, a faith-based advocacy group for peace and justice. It is a Philadelphia based group that is expanding into the Philly surrounding areas. My passion for POWER stems from the realization that we cannot transform our communities for the better if we are not united. Yes, individually we can feed the hungry, but if we are to address the systems that allow hatred and injustice to fester, we need to come together to offer a different vision and work toward it. It starts with listening to the cries within our neighborhoods and townships. We pray, God, that we will hear and heed the calls. I invite you to join me in this holy work.
I want to share a deep teaching based on the other holiday that fell today – and that is the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. It is popularly known as the Jewish New Year of the Trees. We have several new years in Judaism, and this one is ecological – knowing that even though is frigid outside, deep inside the trees are the first signs of renewal. On Tu Bishvat, the sap deep within the tree is beginning to rise. We can begin to count the days until spring.
There is a story from the Talmud that is often associated with Tu Bishvat, that of a man named Honi. He was walking one day, and saw an old man planting carob seeds. Now, a carob tree takes 70 years to bear fruit. He asked the man, “How can you be sure that you will live to eat the fruit of this tree?” The man replied, “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”
We do not know how and when the seeds we plant will bear fruit. We plant with the faith that they will indeed. Justice is a long term project. We must have patience. We must take it step by step. Hold onto your vision, and when it feel tenuous, lean on your community to remind you of the promise you seek. Dr. King promised us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I want to close with the prophetic, prayerful poetry of Mary Oliver, who died last week. This is her poem: Song of the Builders, from the book “Why I Wake Early” (2004).
On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –
a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope
it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.