Then, it was to begin to make a point about human equality, and to bring about change. They were jailed for their actions, but, in their minds and hearts, they knew that what they did was right.
And now, this year, they were invited back to commemorate what they had done for people whom they considered neighbors, not strangers.
In early June of 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been arrested at the Monson Motor Lodge and Restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, as he joined residents there in working towards integration. Dr. King wrote to his friend, Rabbi Israel Dresner, in New Jersey, asking to him to organize, as soon as possible, as many rabbis as he could to come to St. Augustine as they tried to bring change in the face of great challenge. Sixteen rabbis, leaving straight from their annual rabbinic convention, made the trip to Florida in response to King’s call. They were met there by Al Vorspan, director of the Reform movement’s Commision on Social Action. The members of that delegation were greeted with taunts from demonstrators bearing broken bottles and bricks. On June 18, 1964, the rabbis led a pray-in at the Monson Motor Lodge. While they prayed, black and white demonstrators jumped, together, into the segregated pool at the motel. As noted recently by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, associated Press photos of the angry motel owner pouring acid into the water and an image of a fully clothed police officer jumping in to haul out the protesters were splashed across newspapers the next day, which was, also, the very day that the United States Senate voted 73-27 to approve the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Six of the rabbis who were arrested in that incident returned this past June at the invitation of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society for a series of commemorative events titled “Justice, Justice 1964.” Rabbis Allen Secher, Israel Dresner, Jerrold Goldstein, Richard Levy, Daniel Fogel and Hanan Sills participated in this poignant reminder of how faith, the Jewish tradition, and the call of the prophets of old might lead certain individuals to action.
The rabbis felt that they were not heroes, but partners in a struggle, who joined side by side with people facing a system of discrimination that would not let them be considered full and equal citizens.
While they were in jail, the rabbis penned a widely circulated letter, entitled “Why We Went.” There are excerpts of that letter that I want to share which gave voice to the motivations that led to the presence of those rabbis in Florida on that day:
- We came because we realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us.
- We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away…we could not stand silently by our brother's blood. We had done that too many times before.
- We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.
- We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler's crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to humanity is loss of faith in the capacity of people to act.
- Here in St. Augustine we have seen the depths of anger, resentment and fury; we have seen faces that expressed a deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.
- We came to stand with our brothers and, in the process, we have learned more about ourselves and our God. In obeying God, we become ourselves; in following God’s will, we fulfill ourselves. God has guided, sustained and strengthened us in a way we could not manage on our own.
Some of the sentiments contained in that letter are echoed in the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which explains, in one brief sentence, how we can bring repair to the world and a positive quality to life even when life seems harsh and heartless: UT’SHUVAH – Repentance and return, U-T’FILAH – prayer and establishing a connection with our own spirit and the Oneness of God and all creation, U-TZ’DAKAH – righteousness, righteous giving, or charity – MAAVIRIN ET ROA HAG’ZEIRAH- temper judgment’s severe decree – or give meaning and depth to a world that some could say is random and meaningless.
Long ago, our tradition concluded that life does have meaning and that we have it within our power to decide how to apply the values and beliefs which we prize in all that we do for ourselves and for our world.
We will read from Deuteronomy, Chapters 29 and 30, in a few moments about the Israelites standing together, ready to reaffirm their covenant with God, which gave them a special responsibility. They learned that they needed to choose life and good rather than death and evil. More important, they were told that the secret to choosing life was well within the grasp of every individual member of the community. “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us, that we may do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us and bring it over to us, that we may do it?’ No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart and you can do it.”
Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement, commented on this passage in a way that reaffirmed the trip that those rabbis made to St. Augustine. He explained, “Moses tests the credibility of his audience here, insisting that although God’s demands are difficult to fulfill, they are by no means out of reach. We are commanded to infuse God’s words into daily life, bring them down from the mountain, practice justice, act with compassion, and do this not just in our private lives but in the streets. Politics and society, foreign policy and business, must be in accordance with God’s instructions, as interpreted by the Prophets and Sages. The law must be equal in complexity to the situations it orders. The task is difficult, very difficult, and rarely mastered. And yet Moses insists that there is an alignment between the regimen of mitzvah and our natures. What God demands and promises is not beyond the realm of possibility. Far from it. “The —the thing, the word—is very close to you.” Otherwise, [Moses] seems to say, there would be no chance that we would [ever] heed it.”
In the Haftarah reading for this morning, the prophet Isaiah listened to his people as they complained that their fasting wasn’t bringing them closer to God as they expected. Isaiah reminded them that the rituals they claimed to perform so meticulously must be accompanied by action. Isaiah told his people that God may seem to be distant because, “on your fast day, you think only of business, and oppress all your workers! Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with a cruel fist! Such a way of fasting on this day will not help you to be heard on high….Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house? Then shall your light blaze forth like the dawn, and your wounds shall quickly heal; then, when you call, the Eternal will answer, when you cry, God will say, ‘here I am- HINEINI!’”
The rabbis who went to St. Augustine, Florida acted as if they were responding to Isaiah’s call. They wanted their worship and their work with their congregations to be complemented by their efforts in dealing with the challenge of the injustice that they saw in human society. They felt that performing that service to the community would make their faith substantive and real as they brought divine teachings to life.
In the congregation where I was raised, I had a chance to meet two rabbis who had engaged in struggles for honesty, integrity and justice. Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg was well known for his persistent and relentless stand opposing the notorious political machine of Tom Pendergast in Kansas City. His successor, Rabbi William B. Silverman, before he came to Kansas City, had spoken out against violence occurring in Nashville in 1958 as schools began to integrate. It was Rabbi Silverman who represented the Jewish community at Kansas City’s memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Sunday following King’s assassination in April of 1968. That was one of the formative moments of my life as I watched, standing with my brother and my parents, how faith, interfaith connections, and a wide-ranging communal concern came together in one watershed moment. The values that led the rabbis of my home congregation and the rabbis who went to St. Augustine to take action are deeply embedded in our heritage, well beyond a specific historical event or tragedy.
This afternoon, we will recite, once again, the passage about how we can be holy from Leviticus Chapter 19. Verse 18 in that chapter teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Verses 33 and 34 go even further, just to make sure we know whom we are really commanded to love: “When strangers live with you in your land, you must not oppress them. The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I, the Eternal, am your God.” And if we were still not sure about whom we should have concern, we will recite the story of Jonah, who refused to carry out his mission to tell the people of Nineveh to repent, fearing that those foreign people might actually realize their need to atone for their sins and respond to the prophet’s call for personal change. Jonah preferred to see them suffer divine punishment rather than to have the chance to right their own wrongs. As we know, God wouldn’t let Jonah escape his prophetic task, no matter how hard he tried. Jonah ended up having to deliver his message, the people repented, and all was well, but not for Jonah. He felt like he had lost his battle of advocating for strict punishment over against the intentions of a compassionate God who considered all humanity to be one family. At the end of the book, when God raised a gourd plant next to Jonah to give him shade, Jonah was happy. Then God caused the plant to die. Jonah was angry because the gourd was no longer alive. And God pointed out to Jonah that he had more compassion for the plant than for human beings, in this case, the people of Nineveh. Jonah, hopefully, learned that people deserve at least a touch of mercy when they are ready to truly make a change for the better.
These High Holy Days ask us to recognize that compassion for our own humanity and an admission of our inevitable imperfections can lead us to create a more perfect world. We can discover, as we try to improve ourselves, that the tools for choosing life and good are inside each of us. We can turn today’s fasting into tomorrow’s work towards justice and equality. We have it within our grasp to love our neighbor unconditionally and equally, to the point where no human being needs to be considered a stranger. And we can act with a commitment to overcome any fear that may hold us back from extending our hands and hearts to our fellow citizens of the world.
This has been a difficult year as we watched demonstrators attack synagogues and Jewish institutions in Europe. Rather than seeking dialogue or discussion in free nations outside the Middle East, rage and rampage has often won the day. In the Middle East itself, the possibility of peace on the ground between people who have successfully engaged in dialogue, fellowship and friendship is there. Leaders of nations in that part of the world may not yet be at that place of totally seeing and acting upon common interests due to their disagreement and mistrust. Yet, some of them know that, ultimately, they will need to set aside their difference and decide to follow higher ideals that may trump their own ideologies.
Today’s Torah and Haftarah portions teach there are overarching principles that we can still apply even when a community, a nation or a region seems hopelessly divided. Our biblical heritage remains one of our main guides along a journey towards cooperation and peace. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, taking up the major themes of our Jewish tradition about how we can and should treat one another, made this declaration in 1999: We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of God’s creation. Partners with God in tikkun olam, repairing the world, we are called to help bring nearer the messianic age. We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world. We are obligated to pursue tzedek, justice and righteousness, to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to welcome the stranger, to protect the earth’s…natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage….We affirm the mitzvah of tzedakah, setting aside portions of our earnings and our time to provide for those in need. These acts bring us closer to fulfilling the prophetic call to translate the words of Torah into the works of our hands.
In any way that we choose, with actions that express our own values, we have the opportunity to serve one another with dedication, hope, love and compassion every single day. It is in our mouths and in our hearts, and we can do it. So may we do – and let us say amen.