King and Heschel’s hope and faith

Island interfaith service celebrates the friendship of two civil rights leaders.

The Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center hosted an interfaith Shabbat service Friday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Courtesy Washington Post

On Friday, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center welcomed members from the NAACP Martha’s Vineyard branch, the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, and the M.V. Diversity Coalition in honoring the alliance and legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The interfaith Shabbat service paid homage to King in anticipation of Monday’s federal holiday, and highlighted his close friendship with Heschel — a Polish-born American Orthodox rabbi who escaped Nazi detainment in the ’30s to become one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.

An advocate for civil rights and social justice, Heschel participated in the March on Washington in 1963, joined King in the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, and together they spoke out against the Vietnam War.

The two were close, even celebrating birthdays with one another up until King’s assassination, which occurred only five days before he and his family were to join Heschel for Passover Seder in 1968. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, intended to honor King’s legacy, and to encourage reflection on his teachings and work toward racial equality and social justice, falls on the third Monday of January, near the time of King’s Jan. 15 birthday; Jan. 10 of this year marked the 50th yahrzeit, or anniversary, of Heschel’s death. 

“We are celebrating today two spiritual leaders, two pursuers of justice in solidarity with each other and their communities,” Rabbi Caryn Broitman said Friday evening. 

In some ways, King and Heschel “were cultures apart,” she said, “one from the American South, and one from Warsaw, Poland. They had different languages, different religions … But they shared a vision and a close bond.”

King and Heschel championed the same dream, Broitman said: “Despite the loss and pain that they suffered in their lives because of hatred and oppression, one thing they shared was hope and faith.” 

“Reverend King said that faith was the taking of the first step when you don’t see the whole staircase,” Broitman said, citing King’s words, “Keep moving.”

Punctuated by prayer, hymns, and recitation from the Torah, Friday’s service focused on spiritual faith and solidarity, and included speakers from all over the Island.

“King and Heschel had a relationship built on the struggles and trauma experienced by both Blacks and Jews,” Toni Kauffman, newly elected president of the NAACP Martha’s Vineyard branch, said: “That relationship grew from respect.”

Kauffman noted that King and Heschel met 60 years ago — the same year that the NAACP branch was created, in 1963. 

Jocelyn Coleman Walton of the M.V. Diversity Coalition cited King from his March 31, 1968, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech:

“We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

Having recently worked on behalf of Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s re-election campaign in Atlanta, the Rev. Cathlin Baker of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury drew attention to the disparities among nonwhite voters, and reflected on the parallels between leaders like Warnock and King. 

“I witnessed firsthand the obstacles,” she said, “both systematically and intentionally imposed, that poor people and people of color face in exercising their right to vote.”

King traced “a direct line from each person being a child of God, to personal expression of voting, to a healthy democracy,” she said. 

Those who follow in his footsteps, Baker continued, “pick up the baton, [and remind] us of our fierce struggle that was waged for voting rights, and that full access to voting must still be pursued.”

“Democracy,” Baker cited Warnock, who, like King decades before him, serves as pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, “is the political enactment of a spiritual idea: the sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us a spark of the divine, and a right to participate in the shaping of destiny.”