In a West Side Baptist church, housed in what once was a synagogue in the heart of an Eastern European Jewish neighborhood, close to 150 members of the city’s Jewish and African-American communities came together Monday morning for a unique tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The event, titled Where Do We Go from Here? Strengthening the Bonds between the African-American and Jewish Communities, was co-sponsored by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the Lawndale community’s Stone Temple Baptist Church, The Firehouse Community Arts Center and the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society. The program included reflections on Dr. King’s legacy and on the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities, and the singing of songs and spirituals.
Leaders from Chicago's Jewish and African-American communities gather for a tribute to Dr. King. (Left to right: Charles Leeks, Director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago; Skip Schrayer, Chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council; Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus of Homewood; John Fountain, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times; Bishop Derrick M. Fitzpatrick and Pastor Phil Jackson of Stone Temple Baptist Church.)
“The Jewish community has long admired the extraordinary work and legacy of Dr. King, and we marched side-by-side in pursuit of full equality and justice for all humankind,” said Skip Schrayer, Chairman of JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council. “Today’s program is a continuation of the Jewish and African-American communities coming together to celebrate social justice, and we look forward to more opportunities for collaboration in the years to come.”
Speakers at the event included author and Chicago Sun-Times columnist John Fountain, and Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom synagogue in Homewood, the first female rabbi to be ordained in Illinois and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Both spoke of the shared history of Jews and African-Americans in the civil rights movement, and urged the two communities to honor that heritage by once again coming together to fight for ongoing social change in Chicago’s struggling neighborhoods.
“We are called to revitalize those partnerships that brought our communities together in common cause. We need to build on our successes and strengthen our coalitions,” Dreyfus said in her remarks. “Dr. King taught us: ‘If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward’.”
Fountain, too, spoke about the importance of keeping up the forward momentum.
“We stand today as tangible fruit of [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s] dream, as heirs of the promise,” he said. “Still, I hear the question begging: Where do we go from here? The answer is simple. In the prophetic words of Dr. King – ‘toward chaos, or toward community?’ – I say we must choose community. For our survival as one nation, indivisible, under God, is tied irrevocably to the survival and redemption of us all.”
The program also included a performance by the Kenwood Academy Choir, and a speech from Cherenity Person, an eighth grade student at the Herzl School of Excellence who highlighted the legacies of both Theodore Herzl and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the North Lawndale community.
“The spirit of freedom resides in my school and in my neighborhood,” Person said. “I see it in the quality of my education and in the way my teachers prepare me daily for success in college and beyond. As I walk down Hamlin just past 15th Street, I am reminded that the soles of Dr. King’s shoes once walked these streets, too. The same freedom and justice that he pursued, we still pursue today. I truly believe that myself and my peers will indeed make it to the mountaintop.”
Prior to the event, volunteers from both communities took part in a special service program as part of the JUF Hunger Awareness Project, preparing and serving a hot breakfast to more than 100 people in the Lawndale neighborhood.
“Every year, we look for an opportunity to volunteer on Martin Luther King Day,” said Edie Canter, who volunteered through JUF’s TOV Volunteer Network. “It’s very nice to be here. People have been very welcoming.”
Event organizers chose Stone Temple Baptist Church to host the day’s festivities because of the unique history of the North Lawndale community, and the Stone Temple building itself. Stars of David still adorn the architecture of the church, heralding back to the generations when North Lawndale was home to so many Jews that it was known as “Chicago Jerusalem,” and was the early stomping ground of Jewish leaders such as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and musician Benny Goodman. The neighborhood also served as a base for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s affordable housing campaign in the late 1960s.
Though few Jews live in the neighborhood today, many of the community’s African-American residents say they look back fondly on their childhood memories of growing up in an integrated black and Jewish neighborhood.
Blanche Killingsworth, chair of the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society, and her husband Eric, an engineer for Chicago Public Schools, both grew up in North Lawndale in the 1960s, and said they recall Jewish neighbors inviting their families to dinner and teaching their parents to make Jewish staples such as gefilte fish and kishke.
“This is a day, not only are we representing Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are coming together, we are all coming back home together, reuniting,” Blanche said. “Because the misconceptions that a lot of people have about blacks and Jews are simply not true. We lived here in the community together. A lot of the Jewish people slowly disappeared, and a lot of them we miss, just like I’m pretty sure they miss us. This is a day of unity, and it’s a good thing.”
Members of the JUF community agreed, and said they were proud to be a part of the event.
“This morning was as inspiring as it was heartwarming,” said attorney Michael H. Traison. “If JUF only supported Israel’s welfare and security, dayenu [it would be enough]. If JUF only cared for the needs of our local community, dayenu. If JUF only provided much needed support to Jewish communities around the globe, dayenu. But that JUF does this, and fights for social justice for all mankind and so much more, is a miracle of our time.”