A few weeks ago, I went to synagogue for the express purpose of hearing Clarence Jones speak.
Dr. Clarence Jones was one of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s friends and advisors. He was part of the civil rights movement in a way only those in the trenches were; he was one of Dr. King’s speech writers, and he has committed his life to continuing the work that he and Martin (that’s what he called him) were a part of.
Dr. Jones spoke at a very progressive and forward-thinking liberal yet traditional synagogue (they actually prefer the term “spiritual community”) called IKAR. IKAR was founded by Rabbi Sharon Brous who is frequently named on lists of influential rabbis, has visited the Obama White House on numerous occasions, and studies Jewish texts with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti on a regular basis. Introducing Dr. Jones, Rabbi Brous shared that she had aspirations to be a civil rights attorney before she decided to become a rabbi and that her desire to build the IKAR community emerged from a feeling that you shouldn’t have to choose between doing good for the world or being an engaged Jew.
Dr. Jones is now 85 years old; he was 37 when Dr. King was shot. He is visiting Los Angeles as part of a publicity tour of sorts for a documentary he is part of (The March, a documentary on the March on Washington, jointly produced by Sundance /BBC/Smoking Dogs/PBS). He spoke of the close relationship between the Jewish community in the 1960s and the civil rights movement. He spoke of the despair he feels about how a lot of liberal young African-American students on campuses who are mobilizing around the Black Lives Matter movement don’t identify with the significant role the Jewish community has played and can continue to play in furthering civil rights for blacks. He lamented the association with Israel as one of an association with “the enemy.”
Another speaker was there, too. Her name is Dr. Susannah Heschel, a scholar whose study focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship, and the history of anti-Semitism. Her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was one of Dr. King’s friends and he is regarded as one of the wisest rabbis of the modern age. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel believed that their faith – even though they were of different faiths – united them in their passion for furthering the civil rights movement. Rabbi Heschel came from Nazi Germany and he noted that the way white Southerners spoke to blacks was the way Nazis spoke to Jews. That sent chills down my spine.
Speaking about her father, Dr. Heschel said when you look at the famous photograph of her father marching alongside Dr. King in Selma in 1965 (see featured image on this post), the idea is not for Jews to pat themselves on the back and feel good about themselves for being part of the Jewish role in the civil rights movement. She said this photo should be a challenge to us to continue this work in the name of our religion and our people.
Dr. Jones talked about the songs that slaves used to sing, and how much of what they sang about revolved around the Jewish experience. “Go down, Moses,” for example. You see, the narrative of the Jewish people is that we were slaves in Egypt. One man – a man who was “weak of tongue” and resistant to being a hero – had the courage to stand up and fight for our right to be free. Under Moses’ leadership, we escaped slavery and settled in Israel thousands of years ago.
And we are told time and again in our Torah, our holy books, that it is our responsibility to never forget that we were slaves for the express purpose of helping others be free. (This is also a major theme in the holiday of Passover, which is coming up in April.)
The Jewish struggle and the struggle of African-Americans have been entwined for decades, but the connection is fraying. It can not and should not be lost.
I took my sons with me to see Dr. Jones. I let them know who he was, and I let them know that they needed to use the potty and get a snack before he started speaking because I did not want to miss one second of his talk. They don’t always cooperate, but this time they did. They sat and they listened.
And Dr. Heschel was an added bonus, partly because my younger son’s middle name is Heschel. Named for her father. (I later learned that Rabbi Brous’s son’s middle name is also Heschel.)
After the talk, we went up to Dr. Heschel and I told her to meet one of the children named for her father. She looked genuinely touched. And then Firstborn asked if we could meet Dr. Jones. He was so gracious, and so elegant and well-spoken. We met a legend.
I will not forget that day for a very long time. I am grateful that IKAR exists for people like me and all of the hundreds of people who were there that day; who believe that being Jewish is about a lot more than observance. It’s about living a life that is fully engaged in the entire world and following the lead of all people of all faiths who seek to liberate humanity from slavery.
(Editor’s note: For another piece about someone working to liberate people from slavery, check out Robert Beiser’s post about human trafficking.)