From left, Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel, Rabbi Ilana Mills formerly of Temple Solel, Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami and Rabbi Bonnie Koppel of Temple Chai in Washington, D.C., at the 2015 ‘America’s Journey for Justice March.’ Schneider is holding a Torah.            

This year, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) is dedicating itself to having a stronger Jewish presence at Phoenix’s annual march and festival to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We have invited all Jewish organizations and synagogues to walk with us,” said Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman, member of the JCRC’s board of directors. “We want to join together so that there’s a visible show of support from the Jewish community marching as one.” 

Sharfman added that the most important aspect of building a relationship with the larger community is to listen. Listening, conversing and standing in solidarity during events like marches can help create a stronger sense of unity, Sharfman said. 

This is the first year that the JCRC has made an official initiative to have a larger Jewish presence at the MLK march and festival. 

The march and festival take place Monday, Jan. 21. The march begins at the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Phoenix at 8:30 a.m. and winds its way to Margaret T. Hance Park.

Although the march has taken place since 1985, Arizona was one of the last states in the nation to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan declared the third Monday in January a national holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader. Three years later, Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt signed an executive order recognizing the federal holiday at the state level. 

Just a year later, Babbitt’s successor, Gov. Evan Mecham, rescinded the order and moved the day Arizona would honor King to the third Sunday in January.

The move sparked protests and boycotts against Arizona, but voters in 1990 turned down a proposition to create the holiday. It wasn’t until the National Football League pulled its 1992 Super Bowl from Arizona that voters approved the creation of the holiday. Arizona’s first MLK Day was observed in 1993. 

As always, Phoenix’s march is committed to honoring King’s legacy and promote cultural diversity and awareness. 

Sharfman has attended the march for well over a decade and is excited to be representing Congregation Kehillah this year. Sharfman believes that by simply attending a march, the Jewish community will be showing a great deal of support and solidarity for other communities. 

Sharfman cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who joined King at the pivotal 1965 Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala.,  march, as one of her great spiritual heroes.  

“There is a shared history between the black community and the Jewish community that people in my generation attach a great deal of pride to,” Sharfman said. “I think that history is starting to become forgotten by some. There was a time when we walked together.”

In addition to Congregation Kehillah, other synagogues such as Sun Lakes Congregation, Congregation Beth Israel and Temple Kol Ami have committed to attending and bringing congregants to the march. 

The Bureau of Jewish Education also will be participating. 

“We stand together with those who speak up against injustice, and Martin Luther King did just that in America in our lifetime,” said Myra Shindler, director of the BJE. “He was successful at using peaceful means to stir passions and initiate change.”

Shindler also noted that King utilized passages from the Torah in many of his speeches, including the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. 

For Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami, marching in solidarity is an act he has some familiarity with. 

In August 2015, he marched in the NAACP-organized “America’s Journey for Justice.” 

The 40-day, 860-mile march beginning in Selma and ending in Washington, D.C., commemorated the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement and sought to call attention to other social issues, such as raising the minimum wage and providing children of color with equal access to education.

Schneider was one of a few Phoenix-based rabbis who marched in “America’s Journey for Justice.” He’s working to attend the upcoming march with his congregation as well, because he has been looking for more meaningful activities in which members of his synagogue

can participate. 

Schneider said he wished there was no need to march, but there is so much polarization in America right now that he is compelled to make the trek. 

After seeing many examples of racial bias from police and citing the mass shooting in a church in Charleston, S.C., he said he believes he has a responsibility to march. 

“I do this because we have to get outside of our own reality and face the other’s truth and challenges in this community and world,” Schneider said. “We ‘do Jewish’ when we do more than help individual victims of a society. We march for racial equality. We march for human dignity. And we pray with our feet as we march.

“We can’t individually save the world, and collectively we may not even make a dent. But we still have to try. And our relationships deepen when we do it together.” JN

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