Teaching King and Heschel

This fall I had the privilege of learning about the relationship between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I was excited for the opportunity to learn about these two men. I had heard for many years that blacks and Jews worked together on civil rights and at one time the two groups were close. Having heard this for most of my adult life and seeing little evidence of it except in the relationship of King and Heschel and a few other well documented relationships I started to wonder if it were really true.  Now I had the opportunity to learn about two men, one black, one Jewish, both religious leaders. Once the class was over I had the additional responsibility to teach what I had learned to a diverse synagogue in West Philadelphia on the weekend of the King Holiday.

I grew up in a pretty typical black family in the 1980’s,  we had a picture of King on our wall and my parents had records of a few of his speeches.  I kind of feel like I grew up with the legend of King. My parents were not activist but instilled in me a black pride that one could hear in the song from James Brown “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.” As I grew up and learned more about King; I learned he was a revolutionary, a visionary and I realized that he was a real and true American hero who gave his life to help make this country a better place for everyone. Before taking this class I felt pretty comfortable in my knowledge of King and really wanted to learn more, but as a Jew I was kind of ashamed at my lack of knowledge of Heschel, even though I saw him as one of the great Jewish leaders

The Class

I had the honor of teaching the class, not just on the weekend of the King holiday but also when Jews are reading about the Exodus, freedom and the first Passover.

The 3rd Selma Civil Rights March frontline. From far left: John Lewis, an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Frederick Douglas Reese. Second row: Between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche is Rabbi Maurice Davis. Heschel later wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

First I passed out the iconic photo of Heschel and King marching arm and arm in Selma.  Many of us know about this photo but I asked the adults in the room if they recognized the photo, some did but some did not. I then preceded to tell them about the marches in  Selma, Alabama in 1965.  And when that famous photo was taken it was the third attempt to March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama for voting rights. I talked about Bloody Sunday when several hundred civil rights marchers were attacked and beaten by local police and not allowed to march to Selma.

Alabama state troopers attack civil-rights demonstrators outside Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.
Alabama state troopers attack civil-rights demonstrators outside Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

The Selma protest organizers called in King for help, and with King’s help organized a second march which was held while waiting to get court approval for the group to march. With King’s help the courts got involved and soon the same police that beat the protesters the first time were ordered to protect the marchers as they left Selma. That photo of King and Heschel arm and arm has come to symbolize the great moment of symbiosis between and blacks and jews.

Then I shifted to “But how did they meet? I explained that King and Heschel met at the 1963 Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago, and after hearing King speak, Heschel wrote in his journal that the “Soul of Judaism is at stake in the civil rights movement.”  The relationship between these two men was a genuine friendship of affection as well as a relationship of two colleagues working together in political causes.

I told the group that what I considered remarkable about their relationship is these were two men with very different backgrounds; Heschel, who was saved from Hitler’s Europe by Americans, was born into a Hasidic Rabbi’s family in Warsaw, he wore a long white beard and Kippah.  He escaped the Nazi death camps by just a few weeks.  King came from a conservative black church tradition in the segregated American south.  Both men came from prominent religious families and were, in my opinion, groomed to take up the mantle of leadership in their communities. Both men believed in a God of compassion and righteousness and both men demanded that America live up to it’s ideals of being a nation for all people not just white Americans.

These two men were connected by the prophets and the Exodus story.  Both of these great leaders preached about the Exodus story.  I explained that King, like the American slaves before him connected with the Exodus story and saw the Exodus story as their own story of slavery and redemption.  King and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement saw themselves also embodying the Exodus:  The Israelites were the black American slaves and in King’s time struggling for equality and the end of segregation. And Pharaoh was the oppressive segregated and racist American society.  In King’s speeches we can hear how King saw himself as a Moses-like figure. In King’s last speech he sounds like Moses  “I’ve been to the mountaintop. He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” And like Moses, King was allowed to see the promised land but he knew that he was not going to be allowed to enter. The next day King was dead.  Heschel in his speeches also likened black Americans to the Israelite slaves, and Pharaoh to an oppressive white America.

As the Reconstructionist movement’s only black rabbinical student I have trouble putting into words the effect teaching this class had on me.  It reminded me of why I came to rabbinical school; to educate. Here I am a black person, a Jew, telling the story of King and Heschel. I am someone who embodies both the dream of King and Heschel. And I want to see a future where blacks and Jews work together, and I want to help make the world a better place for all.

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