In an event held on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, I had the pleasure of introducing Rabbi Marc Schneier to a group of teens at Renaissance Education, Music, and Sports, a not-for-profit that serves the South Bronx by providing music and sports enrichment programming, as well as after-school and weekend academic tutoring, to elementary, middle and high school students in Upper Manhattan, Harlem and the Bronx. For almost two hours, the rabbi spoke to and engaged with approximately 40 high schoolers, elucidating the relationship between Dr. King and the Jewish community, and making an entreaty to the young people in attendance to accept the challenge of Dr. King's legacy.
In addition sharing many of Rabbi Schneier's professional accomplishments, including his co-founding, with Russell Simmons, of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, I detailed some of the awards he has received in connection with his work as a fervent advocate of Black-Jewish relations. The students seemed most keenly interested in the words of Dr. King's son, Martin Luther King III, which appeared in a forward for the rabbi's book, "Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish Community," and from which I quoted:
As I interacted more with Rabbi Schneier and learned more about the work of his Foundation, I learned that Rabbi Schneier had a burning desire to advance relations between our respective races. Moreover, as a man of God, he was convinced that while we may have respective differences in our communities, we had much more in common as part of the brotherhood of man. I was impressed that he not only knew intimately the history of my father's work with the civil rights movement, he was also well-versed in the history of my father's connections to the Jewish community. The history of Americans of African descent and Jewish descent is a story of two groups of people who have suffered uncommon persecution but who have persevered with uncommon faith. This is our common ground. We share the dream of a beloved community where one can live without the threat of racism, poverty, or violence. We share the dream of a beloved community where the worst of the human spirit is defeated by our best. In Shared Dreams, Rabbi Schneier reiterates our commonality, as upheld by Martin Luther King, Jr., and fuels the reader to continue to work for the advancement of race relations among all God's children.
Taking the podium, Rabbi Schneier implored the high school juniors and seniors to "embrace the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr." The rabbi underscored that "our challenge is to see each and every person as a human being who has the same hopes, needs, fears, and failures as we have, and is a child of God as we are, and who is therefore entitled to be treated with the same dignity, justice, and compassion as we are."
Schneier spoke about Dr. King's position on Israel, explaining that he was an advocate who believed that Israel was one of the great outposts of democracy. The rabbi also detailed Dr. King's opinion on the Holocaust, emphasizing to the students King's espousal of, in the rabbi's words, "advocating the importance of making the others' oppression your oppression" and King's belief that "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
The rabbi discussed the pivotal role that Jews played in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s, and the myriad ways in which the Jewish community was supportive of Dr. King. Specifically, Schneier noted that more than 60 percent of the Freedom Riders were Jews, while Jews comprised only 2 percent of the American population. He detailed Dr. King's recognition and appreciation of the contribution of the Jewish people and imparted to the students Dr. King's "total disdain, zero tolerance for anti-semitism, especially in the Black community."
During a Q&A period lasting over an hour, the rabbi answered students' questions and touched on themes ranging from the importance of the Jewish people's involvement in the civil rights movement to what a person needs to succeed in life.
He discussed what he believed to be the most important biblical commandment, namely, the mandate to "love the stranger," which, the rabbi noted, is mentioned 36 times in the Bible; he emphasized to the high schoolers that "the real challenge is to love the stranger of a different color, a different ethnicity, one who is not like yourself. This is at the core of Jewish existence and why we've responded to the Black community the way in which we have." Schneier stressed: "It's about fighting for the other, even if it has no part of or involvement of your own community."
In answer to a question regarding how he handles criticism, the rabbi told the group that he does "not shy away from criticism." He continued: "I surround myself with friends who tell me the things I don't necessarily want to hear and I know that it's coming from a good place." When evaluating the validity of someone's criticism, Rabbi Schneier emphasized that the students must consider the source, and determine whether the criticism is "coming from a good place; from someone who wants to bring you down or elevate and inspire you." Many in the audience nodded affirmatively as he continued: "I listen to the message behind the words; I look at the person and their heart. The rest is just noise."
Finally, in addressing another query, Schneier discussed the daily challenges he faces splitting his time among all of his professional and personal commitments: "Being a rabbi is a very, very tough calling; it's not easy and you have to love people. My congregation always, always comes first."
In a different vein, he concluded by saying that the goal he shares with Russell Simmons, namely, the restoration of a "Black-Jewish alliance in the United States," has been something in which he and Simmons, as President and Chairman, respectively, of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, "have made remarkable strides." Currently, he continued, we are in a "state of cooperation, not conflict, in Black-Jewish relations." Referring to himself and Simmons, he stated: "Now, our greatest challenge is the one of Muslim-Jewish relations. That's my primary focus right now."