Our upper school students in grades 8-10 had been looking forward to their traditional Chanukah celebration, which fell this year on the last class of 2014. So it wasn’t an easy decision that Susan Levey, Beth David’s Educator, the 8-10th grade teachers, Ginny and Adrienne, and I made to cancel the celebration – or rather, to mark Chanukah in a very different way this year than we had in the past.
Why did we change our plans? Because the upper school’s Chanukah celebration was scheduled for the same night as a special community Chanukah candlelighting that I thought was important for me to attend as a religious leader, and that we thought was important for the students to experience as young people learning about how to make Judaism part of their lives in and out of synagogue.
Together with Congregation Beth Am Israel and Main Line Reform Temple, and joined by Gladwyne Presbyterian Church and Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Beth David met at Zion Baptist Church in Ardmore, a predominantly African-American church, to light the first candle of the menorah together as a statement of solidarity with our African-American members and neighbors following the grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and to express a shared religious belief that every human life is sacred – and that it is our responsibility to build a society that values every human life equally, regardless of color.
It was inspiring to be there as an interfaith, multiracial community, and at a time when so many in our country would make this issue a divisive one, and following the tragic deaths of Officers Liu and Ramos, it was uplifting to be joined by leaders of the Lower Merion Police, who also participated in the service. We lit the menorah, heard some brief words from clergy and police leaders, and ended the evening with some fabulous music from Zion Baptist’s famous choir.
The Reform Jewish Movement has a long history of civil rights activism and partnership with African American institutions. Under Rabbi Cohen’s leadership, Beth David had a proud history of partnership with African-American neighbors in our community, as well. But today, despite this history, such partnership is not as frequent or as widespread. The grand jury decisions and the protests that followed them have served as a wake-up call to many white Americans about the struggles that African-Americans still face in many aspects of society. For Jewish Americans, it has also highlighted the gulf between our communities that had grown where that partnership has weakened.
This year, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, I hope you will join me in taking a step to strengthen that partnership once again. In December, I joined other Philadelphia rabbis at a meeting of the Philadelphia Black Clergy Association. On the Sunday of MLK weekend, I will be speaking at St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church in Overbrook, just a mile away from Beth David’s previous home in Wynnefield. They have invited everyone in our congregation to join them for what I think will be an inspiring morning of prayer and fellowship. Even if you’ll be out of town for the holiday weekend, I hope you’ll take some time while you’re away to learns little bit about Rev. King’s life, about the history of Jews in the civil rights movement, or about the fight for equality that still obligates us today.
As we look ahead to the new secular year of 2015, may we be blessed to see new possibilities for fellowship, new opportunities for learning, and new paths ahead to a stronger, more just, more compassionate community.