MLK Day brings synagogues, black churches together

Rita Semel remembers the call she received from the Rev. Cecil Williams in 1987, when he was pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco and she was the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“He told me that he was putting together a busload of clergy of various faiths to go down to Alabama to march against the violence of the KKK,” Semel, 94, recounted, “and he asked whether I knew of any rabbis who might join the group. I called Rabbi [Robert] Kirschner [the senior rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El]. He agreed to go, although the bus was leaving on Shabbat. He said he thought that God would forgive him.”

Though Semel and Williams had no way of knowing it at the time, their phone call sparked what has become a longstanding connection between Emanu-El and one of the Bay Area’s oldest African American religious institutions, the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. It was on that trip that Kirschner met the Rev. Amos C. Brown, a civil rights leader and pastor of Third Baptist. After becoming fast friends, the two determined that their houses of worship needed to form a bond to benefit the Jewish and black communities, as well as the city as a whole.

One legacy of their fateful meeting is taking place this weekend, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day: the Emanu-El–Third Baptist 29th Annual Pulpit Exchange.

Brown will be giving the sermon at the synagogue’s Shabbat service on Friday, Jan. 15, with the church’s choir joining with the synagogue’s cantors and their ensemble. Then two days later, Rabbi Beth Singer of Emanu-El will deliver the sermon at the church’s Sunday morning service, and Cantor Arik Luck will sing.

Third Baptist Church choir sings last year at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco photo/lisa j. kessler photography

For Singer, this interfaith exchange, while always meaningful, comes at a particularly critical juncture. “At a time when so many events in this country have had a direct and negative impact on the African American community,” she said, citing the fatal shooting in June of nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, as just one of many crises, “it’s so important for us to be there for our friends in their time of need. We have to let them know that we do believe that black lives matter.”

Brown concurred. “People of goodwill must come together to rid themselves of the dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ” he said. “We need to use ‘we’ … and work to end the fear we have of each other.”

The two services will culminate with meals at which members of both congregations will have an opportunity to sit down together and learn about each other’s lives. “There’s nothing quite like food to bring people together,” Singer said. “As a society, it is something that we hardly do anymore.”

Bringing the African American and Jewish communities together to advance understanding and social good also has been uppermost in the mind of Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. “On the first anniversary of the Ferguson shooting this past August, I was feeling very bad, but I didn’t know what to do,” Booth said. “I picked up the phone and called Pastor Kaloma Smith of University AME Zion Church [in Palo Alto].”

The clergymen began meeting for coffee to share common interests and concerns and talk about how they might work together. One of the results will be taking place on Saturday, Jan. 16 at Kol Emeth and Sunday, Jan. 17 at University AME Zion — when the two men will trade pulpits.

“I plan on speaking at the church about Genesis because it addresses our shared sacred humanity,” Booth said.

Smith also will touch on Exodus, since it pertains directly to liberation, a subject resonant to both Jewish and black worshippers. He said that he was delighted to have the opportunity to work with both Booth and Kol Emeth. “It is the right partnership for our congregation,” he said, “and Rabbi Booth is now a friend, not just a partner.”

In Napa, Rabbi Lee Bycel of Congregation Beth Shalom has been working diligently on plans to observe the holiday. As the chair of “MLK Monday: A Day of Action and Compassion,” he has brought together a coalition of 30 local groups — religious institutions, nonprofits and service organizations — to organize an interfaith celebration at St. John the Baptist Church in Napa on the morning of Monday, Jan. 18, followed by a series of community service projects.

“In a world that often appears very dark,” said Bycel, who will be delivering a sermon at the church, “I hope to invoke Dr. King’s call to each of us to be an agent of change to make this world more decent, more peaceful. We have lost, at times, a sense of hope. We need to stand together as a community … and we must act together.”

Bycel stressed that good works inspired by King’s stirring oratories and courageous actions must occur year-round, not just on one Monday in January.

To wit, Emanu-El and Third Baptist founded a tutoring program, Back on Track, to help San Francisco public school students from underserved communities. It continues to go strong after 29 years.

And in Palo Alto, Booth and Smith are working to organize other programs to bring their congregations together for prayer, understanding and action. A recent kids’ fair at a local park attracted children and families from both congregations.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.