01/17/2014 10:25 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

Honoring Dr. King by Reconnecting Communities


As we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been his 85th birthday, I have the good fortune of seeing up close how his efforts continue to promote social justice. My work as a Jewish social justice advocate is often done alongside African American leaders as together we seek progress on issues ranging from gun violence prevention to voting rights to economic justice. I must confess, though, that I sometimes worry about the distance -- some would say tensions -- that exist between blacks and Jews.

My generation came of age after the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and we look with great pride on the work that our parents (mine included) did to help achieve crucial civil rights gains and forge formidable black-Jewish partnerships. Still, our communities today can feel separate and disconnected.

In a welcomed divergence from this reality, this past August, an African American childhood friend of mine drove up to Washington with her two kids from North Carolina to attend the march commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Although we had only seen each other once in recent years (at our high school reunion), she and I reconnected immediately on the many facets of our lives we had in common, starting with the fact that we were both working mothers and that we both wanted desperately for our kids that day to experience and understand the importance of Dr. King.

But we did more than that. Dr. King taught us: "The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die." In a blog post I wrote about my friend and our time together at the march, I reflected on how the beauty of the experience was that for the first time ever, we acknowledged how different our lives are too. Though we attended the same school growing up, our experiences at the school were different, in part shaped by our race. We also now inhabit quite racially different communities. I work at a Jewish organization; she teaches at a black college. I belong to an overwhelmingly white Jewish synagogue; she belongs to an overwhelmingly black evangelical Christian church. A quick scan of our Facebook friends puts this difference on stark visual display. Unexpectedly, it was our conversation with each other about our differences -- which our time together on this special day enabled us to have -- that forged a new closeness between us.

Before we headed out to the Mall, my friend and I and our kids shared another bonding experience: an event at my organization where one of the Reform Jewish Movement's foremost civil rights leaders, Rabbi Israel ("Si") Dresner, told a little-known story about Dr. King's first Passover seder. Rabbi Dresner was not at the seder, but he had heard the story firsthand from Dr. King in 1962 when they were both trapped in the home of Dr. William G. Anderson, head of the Albany Movement (a coalition calling for civil rights established in Albany, GA.), because the White Citizens' Council was protesting outside.

The story goes that Dr. King had attended his first seder earlier that year in the home of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild (whose synagogue, "The Temple" in Atlanta, had been bombed by white supremacists, as depicted vividly in Driving Miss Daisy). Dr. King noted that everyone at the seder read out loud from a book -- the Haggadah -- that told the story of the Jews' liberation from slavery under the Pharoah in Egypt. Rabbi Dresner remembers Dr. King telling him that he hoped that blacks would similarly honor their ancestors' story of slavery, remarking: "I hope we will be as proud as you are of what our slave ancestors endured and their struggle for freedom."

In honor of Dr. King's birthday, let us make a renewed effort to find opportunities to share time together, speak candidly about the different experiences of our two communities, and remember the many wonderful stories that speak to our accomplished past together.