December 19, 2014 · 27 Kislev

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Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Congregational Programming Examples

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in encouraging people of all ages, races and religions to pursue social justice. He felt that cooperation among diverse groups was the key to building an equitable nation. Building on this philosophy, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time when many congregations connect with an African-American church for worship, socialization, dialogue, and social action efforts. These congregations uphold King's legacy as they unite to work towards justice.

Sinai Temple (Springfield, MA)
Since 1995, Sinai Temple in Springfield, Mass., has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Alden Baptist church. This partnership began when interracial tensions spread in Springfield due to issues within the community police department. Rabbi Mark Shapiro of Sinai Temple and Reverend Willard Cofield of the Alden church seized the opportunity to learn about each other's traditions and to connect with the greater Springfield community.

When the group began, they worked with diversity workshop planning materials from the National Coalition Building Institute to structure their events. The first program was a six-week dialogue session led by the two clergy. Now, community members lead the on-going dialogue groups. To commemorate past Martin Luther King Jr. Days, Sinai and Alden hosted a mini-movie festival, which featured both Jewish and African-American films. In preparation for the discussions within the annual teenage dialogue group, Sinai Temple's ninth graders study the history of Black/Jewish relations and civil rights. The congregations also hold an annual pulpit exchange and enjoy a Shabbat dinner together, solidifying this important relationship for the upcoming years.

Temple B'Nai Israel (Oklahoma City)
For more than 10 years, Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City has hosted a commemorative service on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, along with the local chapter of the NAACP. Every year the arrangements committee, led by the Rabbi and the President of the NAACP, selects a church choir, local musical group or soloist to perform at the synagogue, along with a speaker who has had a positive impact upon the African American community or on Black/Jewish relations. Past speakers have ranged from a 1960s local integration activist to a historian discussing the Tulsa Greenwood riots in the 1920s. Following the main program, the entire group breaks into smaller groups to discuss the speech's themes. This program, made possible by the Claire Levinson Fund, serves as an important annual tribute to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Larchmont Temple(Larchmont, NY)
Larchmont Temple's relationship with Strait Gate Church stems from Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman's friendship with Bishop Wayne Powell; the two houses of worhsipped have long celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day together. In years past, Rabbi Sirkman and Bishop Powell lead services together on Friday night and Sunday morning. At these services, congregational members of all ages play an active role in commemorating the holiday. For example, each congregation's youth dance group and choir perform as part of the faith celebration, and the youth from both congregations write creative prayer offerings to share with the community. In addition to this annual service, these congregations enjoy other outings, including trips to historical sites around the city, which further strengthen this relationship.

The St. Louis Joint Venture (St. Louis, MO)
Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church, led by Reverend William Gillespie, is virtually all African-American and Christian, while Central Reform Congregation, led by Rabbi Susan Talve, is overwhelmingly Caucasian and Jewish. The Joint Venture, incorporated as a non-profit, first came together for the purpose of improving both interracial and interreligious relations. They have marked Dr. King's birthday in a variety of ways, including interfaith services, joint choir programs, walking behind a joint banner in the city's King parades, sponsoring a political dialogue between mayoral candidates, attending theatrical presentations at the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater and of Klezmer music, sponsoring speakers, hosting each other's members in their homes and attending picnics and celebrations sponsored by each congregation.

Members of both congregations have also been guests at education programs organized by students in the Cote Brilliante Public Elementary School, where the children gave readings, skits, and recitations and the two congregations provided additional adult encouragement. The Joint Venture has organized a nationally recognized mentoring program at Cote Brilliante since 1992, and in 1999 supported the construction of a much-needed school/community park and educational garden. Their secret to success has been to stay committed to joint action, being willing to honestly face what they disagree on and not being afraid to try new ways to achieve their original goals of improved inter-racial and inter-religious relations.

KAM Isaiah Israel(Chicago, IL)
Equal access to healthy food and sustainable land use is the focus of a special 2010 Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend program at KAM Isaiah-Israel on the south side of Chicago. The program begins with a Friday night Shabbat service featuring guest speakers focused on sustainable urban agriculture, equal access to healthy foods, efficient ways to produce healthy foods in an urban environment, and food justice.

The program continues with a symposium on urban food production, distribution, and sustainable land use. Participants include local experts and activists in the fields of sustainable, Jewish eating practices, food justice and urban agriculture. The panel is followed by a two-part workshop Sunday designed to teach participants how to start food producing gardens in their communities. The weekend paints a picture of the challenges inherent in building healthy communities fed by healthy food, and begins a conversation about food security and access as a civil rights issue. KAM Isiah-Israel's social justice committee hopes the program will also empower participants to take action on food justice issues by becoming involved with organizations like Growing Power, producing their own food through synagogue and community gardens, and connecting with the URJ’s new Green Table, Just Table initiative on ethical eating.

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