By Rabbi Brian Immerman
During the era of Jim Crow, Jews knew the pain of our black and brown brothers, sisters, neighbors and fellow Jews. We too were excluded from purchasing certain homes, from joining country clubs and from engaging in sectors of public life. This shared experience and deep sense of Jewish empathy motivated some of our great teachers marching with Dr. King, including Rabbi Goldburg, z”l, from Mishkan Israel. Rabbi Goldberg marched with and was arrested with Dr. King. Reflecting on his experience during a Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Goldburg wrote that the struggle to end racism “is clearly and obviously the basic moral issue in this land, and that our response to it…will determine the character of our country for generations to come.”
Sixty years later, racial justice is clearly still a basic moral issue of our day. Racism was addressed during the civil rights movement, through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, but it was not solved. The character of our country in the generations since have still allowed racism to exist and oppress people of color. We must continue to fight for justice and equity for all. One of Dr. King’s greatest assets was his ability to transform a story into a call to action, so that white people of all religions would know the pain that systemic racism was causing. Dr. King helped us understand how to fulfill the mitzvot of loving our neighbors and strangers.
An old Chassidic tale tells of two men sitting in an inn. One was silent for a long time while his drunken companion talked and talked and talked. Finally, the quiet one spoke up, “Tell me, do you love me or don’t you love me?” “Of course I love you,” his friend replied. The other retorted, “You say that you love me, but you don’t know what I need, or what causes me pain. If you loved me, you’d know.” We cannot truly love others unless we both acknowledge their pain, and dedicate ourselves to bringing about relief. As we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, may we commit ourselves to this task.
Rabbi Brian Immerman is the rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Israel, which will host its 54th annual interfaith Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service on January 15 at 6 PM with State Representative Robyn Porter as the featured speaker. To register and join, visit cmihamden.org.