A New Kind of Prayer

Emma Goldberg
December 28, 2012
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“I felt my legs were praying,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in a private memo, circa 1965. The words described his march alongside Martin Luther King Jr. as the two advocated for African American voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

The iconic black-and-white photograph depicting Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King walking side by side is a relic of a previous era, a generation when Jews were at the forefront of many social movements. Yes, Israel mattered. And yes, our own communal divisions, our mishigas if you will, mattered. But so too did the struggles of other minority communities, and Jews took to the streets and joined the black community in crying out for civil rights.

The decades long black-Jewish alliance was a powerful force in uniting our community and giving Jews an opportunity to do real tikkun olam, showing support for our neighbors and friends who desperately needed it. And it did wonders for the community’s public image as well—while the alliance held strong, photographs such as the one of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King reminded America that Jews weren’t wasting away their prosperity, but rather were using it to better society and pursue social justice.

Decades later, relations between the Jewish and African American communities have cooled. It seems that we’re no longer partners in a larger social justice mission. No longer are the Jewish people commonly perceived as a community that reaches beyond our own needs and seeks out those who truly could use support.

The shift is portrayed well in talk of the Jewish community that wove its way through the 2012 election. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson was the biggest donor to this year’s election cycle, and while he made public claims explaining that he was supporting Republican candidates because he believed they would serve Israel’s best interests, his donations were largely seen as self-serving, an effort to buy power for himself.

One cartoon published in June of 2012 portrays Mr. Adelson sitting on a crown-bedecked throne asking, “Who said anything about a candidate becoming the most powerful man in the world?” This election cycle, Jewish community leaders were, as always, vocal about political beliefs and eager to offer donations to support the candidates they saw as representing important values. But this time around, it’s not an image of Jewish charity that many are likely to be proud of. A young Jew might proudly claim alliance to Rabbi Heschel taking to the front of the 1965 political scene, but who wants to get behind Sheldon Adelson’s 2012 self-serving political leadership? Adelson funded the candidates who he thought were most supportive of Israel. But the Jewish community is not going to be a group anyone wants to be part of or admires unless its leaders are taking public stances that promote the needs of other communities, not just our own. What is the African American community calling for right now? What about Asian Americans, and Latinos?

But fortunately, election 2012 did have its Rabbi Heschel moments. The Jewish Council for Education and Research, the Super PAC that created the wildly popular 2008 Great Schlep produced a comedic video this September starring Sarah Silverman, which opened with the rallying cry, “Hey black people, old people, poor people, and students!” Silverman, introducing herself as “your Jewish friend Sarah” went on to emphasize that these were all demographics being harmed by voter I.D. laws. She called for a new kind of justice that expanded beyond any one community’s needs and showed the benefits of political collaboration across divisions of race, age, and religion. Later in the election cycle, the Jewish Council for Education and Research funded another pro-Obama video, this time starring African American actor Samuel L. Jackson.

The best kind of prayers aren’t necessarily introspective and recited in a language that the public can’t understand. Sometimes, the best kind of prayers start from within and then tumble out from the confines of our community. They envelope our neighbors and take in new voices so that those who really need hope can hear them. Let’s remind newspaper reporters, young Jews, and anyone disheartened by self-serving Jewish political donations that we as a community are investing in causes that go beyond our own personal concerns. Let’s make cross-community, cross-race, cross-religion prayers not the exception but the norm.

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Emma Goldberg is a student at Yale University, passionate about using creativity to mobilize social change in the Jewish community. She has developed innovative social media projects for The Great Schlep, a Jewish pro-Obama Super PAC, and also participated in a Theater and Social Justice apprenticeship with the advocacy institute Ma’yan. She is currently serving as the Northeast Regional Organizer for the anti-genocide organization STAND. Emma was named to the NY Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” list and was given Auburn Theological Seminary’s Lives of Commitment award.

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