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Giving Feet to Our Faith

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Heschel marching together

January 14, 2016

Dear Friend of Israel,

It’s hard to believe that April will mark 47 years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I often wonder what he would think, if he were alive today, of the strides we have made as a nation toward racial equality – and how he would view the challenges that still exist.

My greatest recollections of Dr. Martin Luther King weren’t only of his inspiring leadership, or his incredible ability to speak with vision and passion – qualities shared by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom he marched with in the civil rights movement. What I recall is that Dr. King was a man of principle.  Everyone was advising him, when he spoke out against the Vietnam War, “Don’t do it, because it will break up the Civil Rights Movement.” He said, in effect: I have to; this is a part of my moral stance. He went against the grain, and against his advisors. And whether people agreed with him or not on this particular issue, he acted according to the dictates of his Christian faith.

I have always been moved and inspired by Rabbi Heschel’s poetic description of what religion, faith, and Judaism really are. And the same thing is true with Dr. King and Christianity. These were people who, as the expression goes, “gave feet to their faith” (quite literally, when they marched together for equal rights for African-Americans). They didn’t stay in an ivory tower or in the pulpit or in the university. They went among their people like Moses did. He grew up in the palace of Pharaoh. But when he saw the oppression of his people, the Jewish people, he came down from that “throne,” if you will, and helped deliver them from bondage.

On Monday, January 18, as Americans observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they will remember Dr. King for his pivotal role in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. What is less known – but also well worth remembering – is that Dr. King saw a clear parallel between the struggle of his own people for equality and the struggle of another group familiar with oppression: the Jewish people.

John Lewis, a U.S. politician who worked side-by-side with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement, once wrote that Dr. King “knew that both peoples were shaped by the tragic experience of slavery. He knew that both peoples were forced to live in ghettos, victims of segregation . . . . King understood how important it is not to stand by in the face of injustice. He understood the cry, ‘Let my people go!’”

Dr. King was also a staunch supporter of the modern state of Israel. At a 1968 national rabbinical convention, he said, “I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., spoke of a day when all people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This principle is at the heart of IFCJ’s African-American outreach initiative, which brings together these two great communities of faith to work on issues that are of common interest. I have spent much time speaking at African-American churches in the past year, and have received a wonderful reception both from church leaders and their congregations. We have also been privileged to host trips to Israel for church leaders, which has been an uplifting and deeply spiritual experience for all. I am greatly encouraged by the progress we have made and the bonds we have forged.

We may have come closer to Dr. King’s dream in some ways, but we have not yet achieved it. But with the help of Almighty God, and with each of us displaying the courage and boldness that Dr. King displayed during his life, I do believe the day will come. May we remember his words this coming Monday as we reflect on how far we have come in terms of spiritual and racial equality, and, considering the significant strides yet to be made, choose to do our utmost as we seek to honor and emulate our God of love, peace, and justice.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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