Saturday, January 30, 2010

Joint Worship Service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King

Jews, blacks to celebrate King's legacy together

By Nathan Paige

January 14, 2009, 11:06AM
Sopranos, from left, Tinishia Hunter of Maple Heights and Darcia Solomon and Tonya Bates, both of Cleveland, practice Christian hymns at Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights. They are members of the Body of Christ Assembly Heights Church, which leases space from the synagogue for its Sunday services.
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  CLEVELAND — Growing up in  culturally diverse Shaker Heights, the Rev. David Owens, a 48-year-old African-American, saw little interaction between blacks and Jews. Color, creed and class differences seemed too great to overcome.
But Owens, now pastor of a nondenominational Christian church, has seen a big change.
    His congregation, the Body of Christ Assembly Heights Church, and another black congregation, Abundant Grace Church, worship every Sunday in spaces they have leased for the past few years at Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights.
    And the synagogue for the first time has invited both Christian flocks to join its Sabbath service this Saturday marking the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Sam Freeman, minister at Abundant Grace Fellowship Church, teaches adult bible study before services at the Park Synagogue, where the Christian church leases space. Kim Orr of Beford Heights is at left.
"We're truly in a new day, a new way of thinking," Owens said.
"We understand our differences," said the Rev. Darryl Harris, pastor of Abundant Grace. "But we recognize what we share in common."
Historically, Jews and blacks in America struggled together for civil rights. But that alliance was strained in recent decades as some leaders within the two communities clashed publicly.
In 1984, for example, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan accused Jews of practicing a "dirty religion," and Jewish leaders called the Nation of Islam leader a "black Hitler." That same year, the Rev. Jesse Jackson sparked a furor when he referred to New York City as "Hymietown." He later apologized.
"There was ugliness," said Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. "But I never believed the African-American community felt the way Farrakhan felt."
Caruso acknowledged that since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Jews and blacks have lost some common ground and they need to regroup.
"There's always been a natural connection between Jews and African-Americans," he said. "Both have been minorities in this country and both have experienced oppression and discrimination.
"Martin Luther King stood on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and compared the African-American people to the Israelites coming out of ancient Egypt. We were slaves for 400 years, and we share with black Americans the story of coming out of slavery."
Fairmount Temple is planning special MLK services and events for Friday and Monday, including poetry, music and African drumming performed by actors from Karamu Theatre.
The temple's regular Friday evening Sabbath service will feature African-American lecturer Christian Dorsey, who will talk about "The Change We Still Need: Black and Jewish Relations in the 21st Century."
Dorsey, who works at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said in a telephone interview that both groups need to put aside divisive issues like support for Israel -- not generally embraced by blacks -- and affirmative action -- not generally embraced by Jews.
"We need to work in good faith on issues we both care about," he said. "We can't allow the flash-point issues to divide us."
Issues that generally appeal to both sides include the social justice teachings of King and the message of President-elect Barack Obama about coming together and building community, Caruso said.
Nationally, 78 percent of Jewish voters voted for Obama -- the highest proportion of any demographic group other than African-Americans.
"On the eve of the inauguration of the first African-American president and in honor of Martin Luther King, we can show how two different communities can come together and celebrate," said Rabbi Joshua Skoff of Park Synagogue.
"We have a whole new generation of Jews and African-Americans. And we're all preaching the same thing -- good family values."
Both rabbis said they want to continue reaching out to the African-American community. "At least once a year, we're trying to make these inroads and, God willing, we'll do it more often," Caruso said.
Skoff added, "What would Martin Luther King say if he were alive today? He would call us to come together."

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