The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were both spiritually grounded activists who modeled putting faith into action to address injustice.
The photograph of the two men — a Conservative Jewish theologian and a progressive Protestant theologian — walking arm in arm (with other civil rights activists) in the front row of marchers in Selma, Ala., in 1965 has come to symbolize a time of unity between the African-American and Jewish communities. The march, from Selma to Montgomery, protested unfair state laws and violence that kept African-Americans from voting.
Shortly after the march, the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, forcing states to end discriminatory voting practices.
On Sunday, organizers of a special program to celebrate their lives, visions and teachings hope to encourage those in attendance to work toward social justice in the spirit of Heschel and King. The 90-minute interactive program, “Praying With Their Feet: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. & Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel,” will begin at 9:30 a.m. at Beth El Congregation, 750 White Pond Drive, Akron.
“They both came from two different places. Dr. King was a Baptist minister from the segregated South, trained at Boston University. Dr. Heschel was born into a Hasidic rebbe’s family in Warsaw and trained as a scholar in Germany. But they had a genuine friendship that was forged by their love of the Bible,” said Esther Hexter, who co-chairs the program with Lori Bernstein. “Both men had tremendous piety and an understanding that religion is the base on which to build a movement to end injustice and cruelty.”
The title of the program, which is a project of the Beth El Education Committee, was inspired by a quote from Heschel after he returned from Selma: “I felt my legs were praying.” It is part of the Cheryl Carter Beth El University Series. It will feature attorneys Martin H. Belsky and Lee Gill, who co-chair the University of Akron’s Diversity Council.
Gill, the associate vice president for inclusion and equity/chief diversity officer at UA, served on the construction committee of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Before coming to Akron in 2008, he was the chief executive officer of Berrien Springs, Mich.-based Stratus Group Consultants, a firm that provides opinion survey instruments, diversity training, management assessments and advisory services for companies, nonprofits and universities.
Gill’s background also includes service as dean of the Institute for Diversity and Leadership/Professional Development and the affirmative action officer at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Mich. He earned his undergraduate degree in political science and sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Illinois Institute of Technology.
“This is an opportunity to help raise awareness about the strong relationship that developed between the African-American and Jewish communities and an opportunity to share the legacy of two men who were guided by their spirituality and faith in the struggle for social justice and equality,” Gill said. “Hopefully, we will be able to share information that will help people see the connections between the two men and the two communities and inspire them to work for the common good of all people.”
Belsky, the Randolph Baxter Professor of Law at UA, echoed that he hopes the program will provide a forum to share ideas and to encourage collaboration in the areas of diversity and equality. The former dean of UA’s School of Law is active in numerous professional and community organizations and serves as chairman of the Ohio-Pennsylvania-Kentucky Anti-Defamation League. He earned his undergraduate degree at Temple University and his law degree at Columbia University. He also earned graduate degrees at The Hague Academy of International Law and Cambridge University.
“One of the most remarkable things about both [King and Heschel] is that they trusted in people to do the right thing and understood that to attain justice, they had to convince the majority to accept the minority,” Belsky said. “Once you get to a common core of understanding and an acceptance of one another — once you can humanize the other — you’re halfway there. This program is a way to help build understanding.”
The program, which is free and open to the public, will include words from the torah and quotes from Heschel and King. Child care is available by advance registration. A light breakfast will be served at 9 a.m., and a morning service starts at 8:30 a.m.
Reservations are requested by Friday and can be made by contacting Erin Katz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-864-2105, ext. 118.
“Both Dr. King and Dr. Heschel made great strides, but there is still work to be done,” Hexter said. “We need to remember their message and we need to march forward and keep working toward social justice and equality.”