Roxborough festival celebrates the lives and work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel

With an eye toward continuing efforts for social justice, a two-day festival held at a Roxborough synagogue this past weekend celebrated the life and work of two major civil rights leaders prominent in the sixties.

Commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, hundreds of participants from throughout Philadelphia and across the country gathered at the Mishkan Shalom Synagogue for a first-ever Heschel-King Festival.

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel got together in the 1960s on behalf of racial equality, economic justice and peace, according to festival organizers. Rabbi Heschel marched alongside Dr. King in Selma, Alabama, demanding voting rights for African Americans.

The 40th anniversary of Rabbi Heschel’s passing occurs close to the 2013 birthday of Dr. King, which provided both the opportunity and inspiration for the Festival to learn and celebrate the teachings and visions of the two leaders.

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Growing from social justice roots 

The festival was multifaceted and multimedia in scope: In addition to featuring speakers closely associated with King and Heschel, roundtable discussions of topical interest were conducted, and film, music, and prayer brought participants together.

Mishkan Shalom, a leader in the festival’s creation, is the Reconstructionist Jewish congregation in Roxborough, founded in 1988 on principles of social justice, inclusiveness and “Tikkun Olam” – the Jewish value for repair of the world.

“We have sought in Heschel and King, in their Prophetic partnership and vision, our spiritual roots,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Executive Director of The Shalom Center, a Festival co-sponsor and organizer.

“But the point of roots is that we grow from them,” Waskow continued. “We, the many committed communities of action here in Philadelphia, intend to grow from those roots a new harvest of closer cooperation and fiercer urgency to work together toward what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.”

Bishop Dwayne Royster, founding Pastor of Living Water United Church of Christ located in North Philadelphia, said the festival was a “wonderful opportunity to lay the groundwork to bring about systemic change.”

Calls for action 

During the festival’s conclusion on Saturday evening, two speakers addressed calls for action.

Dorothy Cotton, a colleague and confidant of King and leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, noted that King did not start the civil rights movement; rather, “Dr. King emerged out of what the people were already doing.”

Rounding out her address with numerous memories and anecdotes of her time at the forefront of the civil rights movement, she implored audience members to continue with their work, and not postpone their efforts in lieu of a leader.

“In these times,” she said to applause, “I don’t want us to wait for a Martin Luther King to fall out of the sky.”

Rabbi Brian Walt, a leader in Jewish and interfaith peace and justice movements and founder of Mishkan Shalom, observed that Heschel, when asked for his thoughts about participating in King’s famous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, responded, “I felt my legs were praying.”

Recalling his own recent experiences working for peace in Palestine, Walt said that those who pursue justice must do so “justly.”

“That imperative is what must move us today to follow Dr. King’s call,” he continued.

Closing with rabbinical messages which teach that those who seek justice are not obliged to finish their tasks but must never avoid active participation, Walt said, “Let’s pray with our feet, our hearts, our minds, and with our hands.”

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