Students at a Jewish school in Detroit spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day honoring the late civil rights leader’s legacy of activism, through both programs at the school and a coalition of teens who headed to Los Angeles to plant urban gardens and converse about race.
“It’s not just about MLK Jr. but racial justice and fighting for equality,” Rachel Fine, teen engagement manager for the Jewish social services group Repair the World, told the Jewish Journal. “I think it is a good time to create a campaign around something that means a lot.”
While most schools were closed for the MLK holiday, Fine and seven 17- and 18-year-olds at the Orthodox Shalhevet High School flew to Los Angeles to plant urban gardens at churches and compare racial issues facing minorities in both cities. It’s part of a broader effort by Repair the World and other Jewish organizations to reconnect Jews and African-Americans on civil rights issues.
Other students at Shalhevet High School spent MLK Day working through a curriculum designed to encourage them to reach out to elected officials and to take action on the issues they care about most, according to the news site.
“On MLK Day, Shalhevet High School honors his legacy with continued activism. The goal of our school-based program is to cultivate the voices of the future, helping students to recognize the power of their lived experiences,” Shalhevet principal Daniel Weslow said. “In doing so his legacy lives on in each student as they broaden his humanitarian mission through their agency.”
Jewish schools in Los Angeles are also reflecting on the connection between the Jewish and African American communities, including a special student-led service at deToledo High School aimed at honoring King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside civil rights leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
A special interfaith service at Temple Aliyah in LA also aims to bring together Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities to celebrate King’s legacy and his partnership with Jews during the civil rights movement.
“What we wanted to do was reignite, re-establish that relationship that we had for so long between the Black community and the Jewish community, to stand together as we did in the ‘60s, when Rabbi Heschel and Martin Luther King stood together, Temple Aliyah Chazzan Mike Stein told the Jewish Journal. “We wanted to see what we could do to help each other.”
The alliance of Jewish leaders like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement provides a touchpoint for Jewish schools to honor Dr. King, while also highlighting the unique beliefs and commitments Judaism provides as an ethical framework for students to engage in activism.
Jack Wertheimer studied how Jewish schools work to form character as part of the School Cultures and Student Formation project with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
Wertheimer quotes a teacher who described the unique contribution of Jewish faith-based schools.
“If society approves of racism, as it did before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we don’t do that,” the teacher said. “Rejecting incorrect social norms is part of being different as a Jew … Everyone has a tafkid (role) to serve God, but Jews in particular have a task to sanctify God’s name.
Doing the right thing by fellow human beings, the teacher contended, may require Jews to take a countercultural position This did not make Jews superior, she added, but it did mean they had a special religious responsibility to behave humanely.
In a time of polarization, it’s encouraging that religious communities and schools are—on the basis of strongly held commitments—effectively unifying people of different faiths using the example set by Rabbi Heschel and King more than 50 years ago.
Further details about Wertheimer’s research into character formation at Jewish day schools is featured in the new book The Content of their Character, available for pre-order at CultureFeed at a discount.