There are some experiences that fit the times we live in perfectly. One such occurred this past Friday at the main evening service at Reform Jewish Congregation Shir Shalom on Peaceable Street.
In some respects, it was a continuation of a fourteen-year tradition for observance of the weekend devoted to the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Each of those years on the Friday of that weekend, the Congregation’s musical director Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray has invited the Serendipity Chorale of Southwestern Connecticut – regularly augmented by members of the Ridgefield Chorale and the Ridgefield Congregational Church’s choir — to join the Congregation’s own singers and other musicians in a program that blends Jewish Shabbat-observance music with Spirituals and Gospel-style praise music in a joyous and uplifting service that honors the differences in both traditions while it also underscores their striking similarities. The Serendipity Chorale celebrated its 40th anniversary this past year and is directed by the cantor’s very good friend Gigi Van Dyke.
For both Jews and African-Americans, the experience of slavery has been a seminal part of community life and heritage, and for both, the cry of freedom and struggle for justice resonates strongly. And it is surely the case that the powerful and transformative speeches of Dr. King as well as the lyrics of many soul-stirring Spirituals echo with the words of the Hebrew Bible: “Let freedom roll down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream”; “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land; tell old Pharaoh to let my people go!”; “Didn’t my Lord delivery Daniel, then why not every man?!”
And in the Shabbat music lexicon of Shir Shalom, whose very name is translated “Song of Peace”, are a host of deeply moving pieces both ancient and as modern as the 21st Century that, just like Spirituals, can encourage clapping and dancing as well as deep reflection. Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray comes from one of the world’s most distinguished cantorial families, and her knowledge of, and facility in, a huge repertoire flows directly from that proud tradition. Likewise, Director Van Dyke’s familiarity with the vast Spiritual and Gospel repertoire is legendary in this area, and the combination of the two and their choirs and instrumentalists assures a remarkable experience each year.
This year especially, the importance of coming together has been underscored by the deep fissures that this past national election revealed and exacerbated. After a warm and joyous welcome to all, Shir Shalom’s Rabbi David Reiner candidly and courageously addressed those issues in his sermon, underscoring the importance of finding common ground, engaging in reconciliation, and restoring a sense of community.
He referenced the principles recently enunciated by the leadership of his Congregation in four guiding precepts that include embracing “the opportunities democracy provides and the responsibilities it requires”; cherishing “the diversity [that is] an essential component of our community and our country” and “stand[ing] side-by-side with those who share those values”; rejecting “hate, discrimination, and bias in any and all forms, language that divides, discriminates, or demeans, and behavior that incites hatred or promotes fear”; and finally, pledging “to oppose bigotry, bias, bullying of all kinds and at all turns, to provide comfort, support, and strength for those who fear or face such bias, and to be vigilant to protect these values.”
That is a remarkable statement. And the responsive readings compiled by Rabbi Reiner from multiple sources that formed a powerful part of the liturgy for this service included this striking sentence: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
So his sermon’s message was one of peace and reconciliation but also of challenge: to be our best as we do our best, as we listen to one another with respect and openness, and as we model the Congregation’s four guiding precepts in our own lives.
That is a message that would have resonated strongly with Dr. King, and he would undoubtedly conclude — as Rabbi Reiner himself did, quoting Dr. King — with a vision for a future in which formerly bitterly divided people (“the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners”) “will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” That is a result we all need to accomplish across political divides, racial differences, ethnic and national-origin differences, and all of those amazingly diverse attributes of America that are, and have always been, its great strength. This service offered a huge and much-needed beacon of light pointing in that direction.
Prof. Wiesel taught us that to be Jewish was not only a miracle but a holy responsibility to remember and continue.