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MLK Day:  Cream Cheese and Jelly Sandwiches (January 2018)

Rabbi Mike

In 1966 an eleven-year-old African-American boy moved with his family to a hitherto white neighborhood in Washington. Sitting with his brothers and sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here …”

As he was thinking those thoughts, a woman passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into her house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese and jelly sandwiches. She brought these over to the children, to make them feel at home. That moment changed that boy’s life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realize that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were color-blind. Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became a definitive memory for him. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.

That boy, Stephen Carter, eventually became a law professor at Yale and wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum. He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. “In the Jewish tradition,” he notes, such civility is called “hesed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.”

“Civility itself”, he ponders, “may be seen as part of hesed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.”

"To this day," he adds, “I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.” (Thank you to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for this story and reference).

I think of this story on the day on which our nation remembers and honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., because it is illustrative of the history of Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Jews were among the early founders of the NAACP. Many of us marched arm-in-arm with African Americans in the South and in Washington, D.C. Jews were disproportionately represented in the Freedom Riders, young people who worked to register rural Blacks in the deep south. Famously, two of them, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, along with their Black co-worker James Chaney, were killed by the KKK for their activism and their idealism in Mississippi in 1964.

I believe we have this history because of our own repeated experiences of discrimination and persecution, as well as because of the oft-repeated commands in the Torah to love the stranger and to treat every person with dignity and respect. Sara Kestenbaum’s kindness was deeply embedded in her Jewish DNA.

On this MLK Day I think of Sara Kestenbaum, and I reflect on the fact that we are far, far away from the goals of freedom and equality for all, regardless of the color of one’s skin. Sadly, it feels as if we have regressed in this past year, not progressed toward those goals. There is still much work to do, and the teachings and values in our Torah impel us as individual Jews and as a community as a whole to continue to work toward those goals of freedom and equality for all Americans.

Sun, July 5 2020 13 Tammuz 5780