What Does MLK Shabbat Mean in 2023?

January 12, 2023Israel Harris

In 2022, the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined civil rights organizations, faith leaders, and activists across the nation in support of our fundamental right to vote in this country to say, "no celebration before legislation!" Dr. King's family and the King Center continue to build on his legacy and work for a more just country. And this year, about a week before MLK Day, Martin Luther King III and Andrea Waters King joined Congressman John Sarbanes (MD-3) to renew this call to action just steps outside of the U.S. Capitol.

Why? Because two years after the insurrection at the Capitol, and over two years since the death of civil rights champion, Rep. John Lewis, our unified call to action to protect the freedom to vote remains unheard.

"As we witness nations around the world continue to struggle under the weight of violence, hate and poverty, today's social, political and economic landscape reveals the urgent necessity of Dr. King's philosophy and methodology of Nonviolence" - The King Center

Entering a new year and the beginning of the 118th Congress, its feels as if we find ourselves in the same place as two years ago. Black people still have the highest poverty rate at 19.5%. The Black maternal death rate in 2021 was 68.9 per 100,000 live births compared to 26.1 per 100,000 live births for white women. At least 14 states across the country have banned or severely restricted abortion, which disproportionately harms People of Color, representing significant inequity that persists throughout our entire healthcare system. Antisemitism has reached an all-time high, as have hate crimes towards the Jewish population and other marginalized groups, such as the AAPI community. Close to 50% of LGBTQ+ youth have seriously considered suicide. Immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers continue to be criminalized by harsh and unjust immigration laws, paired with a failing criminal justice system, causing the U.S. to be the country with the highest incarceration rate. The list goes on.

Many of the elected officials who are introducing and passing policies that are stripping the rights away from citizens across the nation, particularly People of Color and other marginalized groups, are preventing change by suppressing access to the ballot box. It is through voting that, we the people, are granted power to elect legislatures who are supposed to work on our behalf, and influence policies which impact our daily lives. Since 2021, there were multiple attempts to expand and protect the right to vote so that all Americans could make their voices heard on issues we care about. But, as we enter 2023, not only are we experiencing the continued inequity that plagues every part of our society, but our opportunity to make change through our democratic system continues to be threatened.

In times of crisis, it is easy to feel discouraged by inaction, especially when our elected officials fail to address the needs of the people. Whether we call modern day as akin to the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, the age of the New Jim Crow, or a moment of historic urgency and unrest, one thing is for certain - we cannot stop fighting.

In Jewish tradition, we are guided to live by the value of ometz, or ometz lev, which is often translated to mean "courage", but literally means "strength" or "heart-strength". We return to this value to pull ourselves out of moments of hardship and fear. Throughout history, our ancestors were met with hardship time and time again, but it is the determination to move forward that gives us strength.

Throughout the history of the U.S., our society has also been met with obstacles that threaten the lives of Americans on a daily basis. And every step towards freedom and justice has been met with resistance. It is through the strength in the resolve of those like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that the path towards liberation is made possible.

"Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so, we must straiten our back and work for our freedom" - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Now, it is more important than ever that we come together and mobilize with the same type of energy as our ancestors and civil rights leaders whose work and legacy are entrusted to us.

On January 13-14, 2023 (the Shabbat before MLK Day), synagogues across the United States will celebrate MLK Shabbat (also known as Shabbat Tzedek). This year, let MLK Shabbat symbolize our commitment to expanding voting rights and advancing racial justice in 2023 and beyond.

Check out resources to observe MLK Shabbat in your community.

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