Monday will be the 35th year that our nation commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. I don’t know if we’ve ever needed this day more.
Within the last 12 months, we’ve endured a pandemic that’s laid painfully bare systemic inequities — in healthcare, housing, and economic opportunity — resulting in communities of color being disproportionately affected by the virus. With the killing of George Floyd, we’ve seen our country grapple with a long overdue reckoning on racial justice. And we’re still reeling from last week’s scenes of Confederate flags, Camp Auschwitz and other symbols of hate, and the attempt to undermine our democracy.
Yesterday, at UJA’s annual staff Martin Luther King commemoration (virtual this year), we watched footage from the historic 1963 March on Washington. A peaceful crowd of 250,000 filled the National Mall, in what was then the largest such gathering in the nation’s capital, to hear Dr. King deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Standing before the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King spoke of his dream, and what it would take to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” He urged those gathered to “not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” Juxtapose those words and images from 58 years ago against those we witnessed last week on the National Mall and at the Capitol, and consider the work we have to do as a nation.
But Dr. King’s dream came with a plan — and it has no expiration date. He gave a roadmap toward greater understanding, believing that the struggle for equality begins with recognizing the humanity in the other. In an earlier speech, Dr. King said, “(People) fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”
So let us get to know one another. We have so much common ground — standing up against hate, dealing with the pandemic, fighting poverty — and so much good we can do together. Experience has taught us that there’s value in starting with getting to know the “other,” hearing one another’s stories, our fears and our dreams, in a safe space. In the spirit of breaking down walls and building bridges to greater understanding, UJA funds numerous programs bringing diverse communities together. Just a few examples:
With our support, the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center is creating a new multiracial youth coalition in the Bronx. The Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula is creating a coalition of Black and Jewish community leaders to support small businesses hardest hit by the pandemic. The Marion & Aaron Gural JCC in the Five Towns on Long Island is helping forge new relationships between the large Orthodox community and their Black neighbors to promote racial and religious understanding among youth in both communities. We’re working with Western States Center to bring together top nonprofit and civic leaders from across New York, Jewish and non-Jewish, to learn together about racism and anti-Semitism. In Brooklyn, where there was a notable uptick in anti-Semitic incidents last year, we’re supporting a program of Repair the World to bring together the Hasidic and Afro-Caribbean communities around outdoor service projects.
Change is possible, and it starts with conversations and cooperation at the most local level.
The other way we honor Dr. King’s legacy is through service. Every year, UJA’s MLK Day of Service welcomes thousands of volunteers across New York, Long Island, and Westchester. Of course with the pandemic it looks different this year, but nearly 3,000 people have already signed up for our 35 virtual and in-person opportunities, including packing food for the hungry, making calls to the elderly, or sending cards to the isolated. And this year we’re also working with the Shalom Hartman Institute and Ammud: The Jews of Color Torah Academy to offer a morning of Jewish learning, including a series of sessions with top scholars and activists on the values that align Judaism and Dr. King’s legacy.
Our values are indeed aligned. We also share a deeply divided nation, defiled by senseless hate. Yet we cannot give up hope, nor surrender the belief that we each have a part — an obligation — to do what we can to heal our fractured society. And in doing so, create a more just world for all.
I hope you’ll join with us in any way you can.
P.S. To get an early start on MLK Day, we invite you to join us for an advance screening of Soul to Soul: A Musical Celebration for MLK Day, on Sunday, January 17, 2021, at 6:00 pm. Soul to Soul, presented by The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is a film exploring the intersection between African American and Yiddish musical traditions during the Civil Rights era.