Congregation B'nai Israel

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Reflections on MLK Weekend

by Rabbi James Prosnit
January 2018

This spring, April 4th to be exact will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King. I’m sure at that time we will acknowledge the Yahrzeit, even as this weekend we pause to remember the birthday of the great civil rights leader and activist.  Very traditional  Jews tend to honor people more on the anniversary of death than on their birthday. Other than the bar mitzvah at 13 or the third birthday when a male child received his first haircut, birthdays have traditionally passed without ceremony.

In the Torah, the only birthday party mentioned is that given for Pharoah.

As some of the classical Jewish sages have pointed out, birthdays link us only to the day of birth. When we are born, we have as yet accomplished nothing. We have no more than potential. Birthdays therefore, don’t really deserve applause because they commemorate nothing more than our first appearance on the stage of life. It is in how we play out our role that we find the greatest test of character. And it is that at the end of our lives that should be commemorated and honored.

Of course for most of us that thinking is less operative.  We like birthdays – and there is no greater statement of accomplishment than to have a holiday named or alternate side of the street parking suspended after yours.  And so for the past few decades the US has chosen to honor the life and the work of Dr. King on this weekend in January nearest to his birth date.  In his 39 all too short years, he more than anyone moved the issue of race and civil rights to the forefront of the American agenda. And while we acknowledge that much of his dream has yet to be achieved we well know it was an amazing, inspirational life and legacy we honor this weekend.

Over the last few years and from time to time before that we’ve invited local African American ministers to speak to us on this Shabbat.  This year we decided to show a new documentary film commemorating the life of Rabbi Joachim Prinz,  a rabbi who walked with Dr King and actually spoke just before him at the March on Washington. Prinz was not quite as well knows as say Abraham Joshua Heschel, but his story very much connected his Jewish experience to the plight of African Americans in 1963.

We also chose to observe the King weekend this way, because we we’re encouraged last year at this time by Rev. Bennett fror Mt Airey Church in Bridgeport to do a bit more reflecting on our own attitude toward race and the racial divide that still exists within our society.  I think last year someone asked him, “well what can we do?” – and his answer was to spend more time looking within.

Over the past 50 years, Jews have in many respects become white people (I talked about that on Rosh Hashanah) and while I’m not a big fan of the term white privilege because I think it fosters too much defensiveness when we hear it – I do think we need to be honest with our history and the fact that for most of us it has been easier to overcome a Jewish sounding name or a Jewish look (whatever that may be) than to overcome one’s skin color.

In post-World War II America, my parents were able to buy a home in an emerging suburb in Westchester County for something like $16K.  By the time they retired there was considerable equity in that property. That coupled with their hard work and achievement enabled them to retire comfortably and leave an inheritance for their children and grandchildren.  A black GI returning from the war did not have that opportunity.  Redlining prevented the purchase of a home in many neighborhoods and made it much more difficult to achieve the type of middle or upper middle class life many of us were blessed to be born into.  That’s white privilege.

But there’s something else that I realized about our privilege that has somewhat subtler implications.  Earlier this year I happened to be in a race awareness group with Rev, Bennett’s wife, Donna.  And she said something to the group that was so very obvious but something I’m embarrassed to say I never twigged into. Much of our self-identity is connected to our ancestry.  Consider the popularity of all those DNA/”23 and me” programs we see advertised.  We like to think of ourselves as Jews, but also connected to some national roots. Czech or France or Polish; for other white Americans – Irish or Italian or dare I say, Norwegian. Our immigrant experience is an important piece of who we are.

Because of the slave experience, that information is not available to most African Americans. Perhaps it’s changing with those genetic testing samplings, but you get the point she was making.  Roots are important to our self -understanding and our security and I’d like to suggest –that that too is part of our privilege.

Now privilege, I believe is not something about which we personally need to feel guilty – but it is something that we need to acknowledge and recognize when we think of race in our nation. We could probably teach our president a bit about it as well. But for now please watch for programs throughout the winter and spring on the subject.

And read this week’s Torah portion – which was an inspiration to Dr King. The confrontation of Moses and Pharoah is the centerpiece of tomorrow’s reading.  The story of liberation is an ongoing story, as Rabbi Prinz will teach us. It is one from which we must not allow ourselves to desist from be engaged.