Here I Am, Send Me! : Reflections from Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Cleveland’s Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk spoke on Wednesday, August 28, 2013 at Cleveland’s Public Hall, as an honorary co-chair of Cleveland’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held August 28, 1963, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our Jewish community was jointly represented by Rabbi Nosanchuk and Rabbi Stephen Weiss of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation, and leaders of American Jewish Committee in Cleveland  including its director Lee C. Shapiro, and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. This blog post includes excerpts from his remarks on the occasion, as he was asked to reflect on the history of Jewish engagement in civil rights, and the shared values of the Jewish community and African-American community in the work of continuing to build civil rights in our society.

I’m honored to speak here tonight in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

As Senior Rabbi of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, I feel that I am standing on the shoulders of my predecessor, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld who nearly lost his life only a year after King marched with thousands in Washington, when beaten with a tire iron by the foes of equal voting rights, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. My memory today is drawn to Rabbi Lelyveld as well to Rabbi Joachim Prinz – who spoke at the March on Washington only minutes before Dr. King rose to the podium.

Rabbi Prinz had suffered arrests and threats of imprisonment in Germany, forcing him to leave Berlin. This survivor told the crowd gathered in Washington fifty years ago that neither bigotry nor hatred were the most urgent, the most disgraceful and shameful problem he faced in Germany. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem, Rabbi Prinz told them, was silence!  Worse than hatred…worse than bigotry… is silence and the message it sends to those in harms way.

That is a message we must continue to hear today. It is a lesson from black history, from Jewish history and from human history that we must still hear. For Dr. King did not ask to be a martyr, in Washington, 50 years ago. He didn’t know his name would one day be emblazoned on boulevards and schools. No, the only place Dr. King wanted to place his name and all our names was on a list of registered voters. The only place Dr. King wanted our names placed was on a list of those attending school freely in any college they chose. He wanted us all- in this country- to have the dignity to know that the Civil Rights Act, that the Voting Rights Act, that the acts of courage by those who objected to bigotry in this nation would be the rule and not the exception in our society.

It is tempting to pause each January on the holiday in his name and think this is the day to be like a king, like a Dr. King. But the Jewish citizens who worked with him, his historic partners knew, because Dr. King opened his heart to them, that if we viewed it that way, our entire nation could be a kingdom of servants, an entire nation committed to service, to non-violence, and justice!

So I come here tonight on behalf of our Jewish community in Cleveland . I say to you that our story- our master story as Jews is the story of the redemption of an enslaved people. We remember slavery- and so we are inextricably linked to African Americans, whose heritage remains bound into the chains of enslavement. So as Jews we’ve come to know through a historic commitment to civil rights that emancipation is not something one man can just proclaim and it is done.  No, emancipation continues to need proclamation. It was proclaimed by Dr. King 50 years back, and it will be proclaimed again when we finish the business of the civil rights movement – making opportunities available to all those in our society currently denied equal rights. All people, black and white, old and young, gay and straight, all of us must proclaim emancipation… and then we’ll be Kings for a day. Then we’ll be members of Kings family.. We’ll be members of the Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner families. We’ll be members of the Medgar Evers and Kivie Kaplan families. We’ll be members of the Otis Moss, Sr. family and the Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld family. We’ll be part of an American family, and Ohio will be the better for all we’ve done.

As an Ohio Jewish leader I say to you that Dr. King’s work won’t be complete here in Ohio until we act in accordance with their vision of equality… equality to live and work and speak your mind… and equality to register and to vote every 1st Tuesday of November.  And there are foes of this march tonight. Foes that don’t tell us to get back into segregation. No, the foes of fulfilling Dr. King’s dream say that theirs is a cause for fairness, for justice, and to eliminate what they call…voter fraud. The only fraud is the claim of rampant voter fraud!

To stand up to these fraudulent accusations, to realize King’s vision, to keep equality and dignity and freedom as our core values we’ll need great faith. We’ll seek God’s every strength and blessing. We’ll need to stand up the way Isaiah did. We’ll need to stand up and say to God and to one another “Here I am. Send me!” when something is ugly or shameful. Here I am to stop the bloodletting and pain. “Here I am” I want you to say! “Send me!”

We pledge tonight to respond to inequality, injustice and racism whether it is foments in Los Angeles, or in Chardon. We’ll respond whether it is proclaimed over the airwaves of our nation, or over the microphones at the United Nations, we’ll respond. We’ll respond. As we did 50 years ago for Dr. King, we will respond.  Today, pastors, rabbis, imams, public officials, citizens of all faiths and no faith, we must respond. We must still defend the equality for which Dr. King fought so hard. And on this anniversary, only 50 years after his March on Washington, this is no time to wait for Dr. King’s cavalry to come. We are the cavalry. Today we’ve got to say: “Here I am!” We’ve got to say “Send me!”  Today is a day to use our freedom of speech and our freedom of assembly to say that so long as any of us is blocked on a pathway to vote freely and easily, Dr. King’s dream goes unrealized!

For though we no longer live like the Israelites before us, though we no longer are escaping slavery and looking out at the Sea of Reeds, there is still much work to do, work for peace and justice, amidst hostility and oppression. And as a meditation in my prayer book reminds me each time I open it: “wherever we live, wherever we go it is eternally Egypt, and that there is no way to get from here to there, except by joining hands, marching together!” This is the message I echo today. May we get from here to there, by joining hands, and marching together!