Reflections on The MLK Shabbat – Visions of Freedom and Justice

Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day.  It is a crisp 40-degrees outside.  There are tourists — bundled up in winter coats — visiting his new memorial, which overlooks the Tidal Basin in Southwest DC.

The History Channel is on my TV.  Tom Brokaw is narrating “King,” a special dedicated to the Civil Rights leader.

Many local residents, including myself, are home from work reflecting on the change that this man delivered (and relaxing after four incredible NFL playoff games this weekend).

Many local residents, including myself, on Friday attended the 8th Annual MLK Shabbat, Visions of Freedom and Justice, hosted by the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and Turner Memorial AME Church.  My first in the annual series, but one of many visits to Sixth & I and Rabbi Shira’s services.

Going into the event I had a basic understanding of the connection between Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel.  Leaving, I had a finer appreciation.  Cantor Larry Paul spoke the words of Rabbi Heshel.  Borrowing the words from Heshel’s No Religion is an Island, the Cantor said “There is no monopoly on holiness…God is near to all who call upon him in truth.”  These words resonated with me, especially as they came a week after the passing of Jerzy Kluger, the childhood best friend of Pope John Paul II, who helped to establish diplomatic relations between The State of Israel and The Vatican.

Pastor William H. Lamar IV, of Turner Memorial, provided a rousing keynote speech.  Why?  The history of Sixth & I dates back to 1908 when Adas Israel Congregation dedicated the building.  As Adas moved to a new, larger, home in Cleveland Park, Turner Memorial acquired the building in 1951.  In 2002, when the building I sat in on Friday almost became a nightclub, it was saved by three developers and rededicated in 2004 as the pluralistic home for religion, culture, and community that it stands today.

The Pastor’s powerful words spoke of how he was torn.  How he saw King’s memorial and was neither hot nor cold about it.  He told us about how he personally connected with Dr. King and how he, as a child, aspired to follow his footsteps.  But he also spoke about the role of King.  How if he he was not shot down in 1968 and if he lived today, what would he think and say about the current state of affairs of this country and its people.  Would he sit idle as racism, intolerance, and the socio-economic disparities amongst minorities continued?  As the middle class shrinks and as politics, perhaps, plays a greater role than policy to some in power in this town?  He would not.

Like many services at Sixth & I, music followed spoken word and prayer.  But instead of singing along to Rick Recht, the Howard University Gospel Choir’s song reverberated off of the star-filled dome.

Like many services at Sixth & I, dance flowed from spoken word and prayer.  But instead of doing the hora to Salaam (od yavo shalom aleinu), the Agape Liturgical Dancers from Turner Memorial filled the space in front of the stage.

For those that have not been to MLK Shabbat, I’d encourage you to next year.  It is an experience.

For those that have not been to Sixth & I, I’d encourage you to visit regularly.  It is a place that would welcome you.

And for all, I hope you take this day and reflect on who Dr. King was.  And what he means to you.  And what he means to the Jewish people.  And what it means to have forests dedicated in southern and northern Israel based on the Kings.