Sinai Temple holds a Shabbat service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Photo courtesy of Courtesy Craig Taubman

Using MLK Day to Engage and Enlighten


When Rachel Fine and seven teenagers, ages 17-18, arrive in Los Angeles from Detroit this weekend, they plan to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day in various ways. They will plant urban gardens at churches. They will have conversations about race. They will compare issues facing Angelenos to those facing people in Detroit.

“It’s not just about MLK Jr. but racial justice and fighting for equality,” said Fine, who as the teen engagement manager at Repair the World, a Jewish social services organization, is using a grant dedicated to exposing Jewish youths to Jewish communities around the country. “I think it is a good time to create a campaign around something that means a lot.”

Repair the World is one of many Jewish organizations that will be marking the MLK Jr. Day holiday on Jan. 15 with special programs over the next two weekends.

While many Jewish schools and all public schools will be closed for the federal holiday, the modern Orthodox Shalhevet High School will have a regular school day, during which teachers will place the holiday in historical context and students will engage in activism. Shalhevet English Department Chair Michelle Crincoli has created a curriculum encouraging students to reach out to elected officials about issues that are important to them.

“On MLK Day, Shalhevet High School honors his legacy with continued activism. The goal of our school-based program is to cultivate the voices of the future, helping students to recognize the power of their lived experiences,” said Daniel Weslow, general studies principal at Shalhevet. “In doing so, his legacy lives on in each student as they broaden his humanitarian mission through their agency.”

“What we wanted to do was reignite, re-establish that relationship that we had for so long between the Black community and the Jewish community, to stand together as we did in the ’60s.” — Chazzan Mike Stein

On Jan. 12, deToledo High School will honor King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with a student-led service, during which students will read quotes from the two civil rights leaders.

“We celebrate these two civil rights champions because the work of healthy race relations is not yet done,” said Cheri Mayman, director of marketing at deToledo High School.

The service will conclude with a rock band performing the U2 song “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

On Jan. 19 in Woodland Hills, Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities will come together at Temple Aliyah for an interfaith MLK service, featuring Temple Aliyah Chazzan Mike Stein, who said he expects the event to celebrate the historic partnership between Jews and African-Americans on civil rights issues.

“What we wanted to do was reignite, re-establish that relationship that we had for so long between the Black community and the Jewish community, to stand together as we did in the ’60s, when Rabbi Heschel and Martin Luther King stood together,” Stein said. “We wanted to see what we could do to help each other.”

Similarly, Sinai Temple will host MLK-inspired services on Jan. 12-13 that honor the moment when the two communities banded together toward creating a more just world.

“The event harkens back … to a certain sentimental relationship the Jewish community of L.A. has with the African-American community,” event organizer Craig Taubman said.

Rev. Mark Whitlock, senior minister of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Orange County, will be participating in the Sinai Temple service on Jan. 13. He said the event would commemorate King’s legacy and focus on healing injustices in the world, from the millions of people who lack access to quality health care to the thousands of people sleeping on the streets in Los Angeles County.

Whitlock believes both issues would pique King’s interest if he were alive today.

“King would say the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, was a step in the right direction for our country when it comes to public health care. … [And] this challenge of poverty in the city of Los Angeles, which has the largest homeless population in the country, I think King would be absolutely angry about the amount of people living in the street,” he said.

Leo Baeck Temple will hold an MLK Shabbat service that will be about creating partnerships between the African-American and Jewish communities beyond the bimah. Rabbi Ken Chasen said he anticipates his temple’s service to foster greater engagement in social justice work among his congregants.

“This is a natural outgrowth for us, another way for us to deepen our ties together in the community so that as we back away from the symbolism of the beautiful Shabbat service and go back into the trenches of making Los Angeles a more just place, we have experience of having prayed with another, as well,” Chasen said.

The focus of all the events and initiatives will be on what brings communities together as opposed to what divides them.

“AME Church and the Jewish community are coming together not to just celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King,” Whitlock said. “It is coming together as a community, coming together to share our stories, struggles and the celebration that we believe the God that we both worship will liberate us from bondage.”

+