This week, hundreds of communities across America will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with interfaith services featuring pastors, rabbis, imams. But for our community of interfaith families, this national holiday has an even deeper significance. Dr. King spoke about the day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” In our community, we go beyond joining hands, we create families together. We now have several member families composed of Christian African-Americans married to Jews. Of course, intermarriage between Jews and blacks isn’t new—the first significant wave of marriages occurred when these two groups worked side by side during the civil rights movement. But in the 21st century, the good news is that neither the Christian African-American partner, nor the Jewish partner, has to give up their religion in order to be together. They can give their children roots in both dynamic religious traditions.
On Sunday, our community had our own celebration of Dr. King, featuring Sombarkin, a powerful a cappella gospel trio (Karen Somerville, Lester Barrett Jr. and Jerome McKinney). In our discussion group afterwards, our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, talked about meeting Dr. King in the 60s. Rabbi White was a student of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. King in Selma and had a deep relationship of mutual respect and engagement with him.
Then, Rabbi White and Karen Somerville, an African-American museum director and historian, talked about their own close friendship, and the ups and downs of the history of the relationship between Jews and African-Americans. They pointed out that African-Americans recognized and celebrated Jesus as a Jew, long before white Protestant churches began to see Jesus in this way. And of course, there’s the solidarity that comes with the knowledge of having been slaves, however attenuated that knowledge is now for Jews. And the shared sense of survival in the wake of tragedy (American slavery, the European Holocaust). And the shared sense of being a repressed minority in America (increasingly rare for Jews). But none of this is new.
Here’s what is new: an African-American father, married to a Jewish mother, standing up at our celebration to lead the responsive reading excerpted from the “I Have a Dream” speech. As this father read of the day when, in Dr. King’s words, “with this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together,” the interfaith and biracial children in our community have implicit permission to fully appreciate King as a minister, as a man of deep Christian faith. They could listen to those words knowing that both of their parents belong equally in our interfaith community. Neither one is a guest or visitor. Neither one must compromise their religious identity. And in our community, these children will learn the history and rituals and ideas of Christianity, as well as the history and rituals and ideas of Judaism. These children can grow up listening to gospel songs of freedom, based on the Exodus story so dear to both Judaism and African-American Christanity, and so often sung at interfaith Shabbats and Seders. But they are also free to explore the gospel songs that mention Jesus, and perhaps even to download Sombarkin’s sublime version of “I Want to Walk and Talk With Jesus” (the only Sombarkin song available as a ringtone!) — a song that probably isn’t played at any Shabbat or Seder.