Background: In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, and in consideration of the alarming rise in hate speech and incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the harmful rhetoric promoting misogyny, homophobia, and demonizing of immigrants and refugees, the clergy and Social Action Committee of Temple Beth El in Madison, WI decided to hold a special service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr. that focuses on human rights and speaking truth to power.
- Six weeks prior to the service, the clergy conferred with the Social Action Committee to discuss the idea of holding a human rights service in honor of MLK Day and in response to the current climate of fear and distress. The committee recommendation was to keep the service positive and focused on opportunities for action.
- Four weeks before the service, the Rabbi sent out the following message to the congregation via the congregation’s listserv:
“Subject: "January 20 Service at Temple Beth El: Standing Up for Justice: A Time for Action"
Dear friends and fellow congregants,
Silence is no longer an option.
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
(--The Rev. Martin Niemoller, prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps)
Many are familiar with these sentiments written in the awesome and frightening shadow of the Nazis' ethnic cleansing of the Third Reich. They remind us of the ultimate price we might pay for silence in response to threats against the human family on account of racial, ethnic, gender, or ideological differences.
Now is the moment when we must put our energies behind the true import of these words, for these same feelings have resurfaced by the racially-charged rhetoric of the recent presidential campaign. With direct threats made to Muslims, Mexicans, and members of the LGBTQ continuum; with anti-Semitic imagery and language having come forth from a major political party candidate, and with a discernible increase of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim assault following the election; with disrespect to those with physical disability and misogynistic references made to American women: Members of these groups and others have felt threatened to the point of real fear. This is why silence is no longer an option.
I invite you to our special Temple Beth El worship service on January 20 at 7:30 PM, at which time we will offer prayers of hope and inspiration, hear from guest speaker Lester Pines who will speak about our post-election situation and our needed Jewish response, and learn how each of us can get and remain active locally in helping to stand up to the hatred and bigotry that have been elicited during the campaign and after it.
The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for every experience on earth, and this is our time for action, for is only by our actions, as individuals and as a nation of citizens who will stand up for what is good, that we have a chance to make a difference.
Please join me, Cantor Sharon Brown-Levy, members of our Social Action Committee, guest Lester Pines, and other concerned congregants, for a night of reflection, inspiration, and commitment to action.”
- Two weeks before the service, the Rabbi sent out a similar message, and the Social Action committee sent out a message in support of the service, encouraging people to attend.
- Reminders were also sent in the weekly Temple e-news in the month leading up to the service
- The Rabbi and Cantor worked together to compile the service, focusing on upbeat music and inspiring words from diverse sources on the imperative for speaking out against injustice in all its forms.
- At the end of the service booklet, a piece was included from Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice (of which Temple Beth El is a member congregation), outlining our Faith Leaders Building Community, Standing Together initiative, explaining the five Working Groups of the initiative, and inviting participants to sign up for one or more Working Group.
- The sermon that evening was presented by a well-known civil rights attorney who focused on current and future civil rights issues that we are confronting in today's political climate.
- Speaking Truth to Power Mini-Museum: As people came into the synagogue, they were invited to browse through the Mini-Museum that had been set up in the lobby outside the sanctuary. Six portable room dividers were set up in rows with room between for people to walk around. On each room divider was placed a photo or image and a written description of an important time in history when a person or a group stood up to tyranny. The photos included an image of Moses confronting Pharaoh; Gandhi’s Salt March; Sojourner Truth and her Ain’t I a Woman speech; Nelson Mandela; Malala Yousafzai; Rosa Parks; Harriet Tubman; Civil rights workers Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman; The Arab Spring; the Suffragist Movement; The Stonewall Uprising; Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc; the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; the 2004 March for Women’s Lives; the Exodus 1947; and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr marching with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (a sampling of some of the images and descriptions used in the exhibit can be found here).
- The exhibit was so popular that people asked it to be kept up for Religious School on Sunday and for the following Shabbat eve service, where the speaker was going to focus on the issue of refugees.
- At the end of the service, at the Oneg Shabbat (celebration of the Sabbat – coffee and cake in the lobby area held every Friday night after services), copies of a sign-up sheet for WFVJ’s Faith Leaders Building Community Working Groups were put out on tables for people to sign on to join some of those working groups, or to connect with Jewish Social Services on refugee resettlement.
If you are interested in learning more, or would like help in presenting a similar event at your congregation, please email Rabbi Bonnie Margulis.