Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Los Angeles, holding a sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood just a few weeks before the marches in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. Last month, the congregation celebrated the anniversary of this historic moment.
During the commemoration, Martin Luther King’s recorded words filled the sanctuary of Temple Israel of Hollywood. He had talked about the Hebrew people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. Slavery – an experience deeply rooted in both African American and Jewish history. King urged both communities to walk towards the Promised Land together.
“Our community here has been proud of this moment ever since. Our members see it as a badge of honor that Dr. King spoke here,“ said John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.
Rosove’s office is where Martin Luther King and then-Rabbi Max Nussbaum first met in the ’60s. He explained that many of the white people marching alongside Martin Luther King were Jews. But at the same time some synagogues preferred to stay under the radar – particularly in southern states.
Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 sermon at the temple:
Bruce Corwin was one of the supporters; he was a 25-year-old student when King spoke at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “It was a big night, like the pope was coming to our synagogue,“ Corwin recalled.
Corwin had traveled to Maryland with a group of fellow students two years earlier to help integrate lunch counters. They sat in coffee shops saying they wouldn’t leave until the owner agreed to serve black people and were arrested. So when Martin Luther King came to Hollywood Corwin could not wait to hear him speak.
“This was Dr. Martin Luther King coming to our place! The place that had spoken out through Dr. Nussbaum about the importance of human rights and human dignity. This was a big deal!“
Progressive Jews were some of Dr. King’s closest advisors, including lawyer Stanley Levison. King did not make important decisions without Levison’s consultation. And one of the movement’s most vocal supporters was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had escaped internment in 1939. By 1965 he was teaching Jewish ethics in New York. The influential theologian marched from Selma to Montgomery barely three feet away from Dr. King.
“Rabbi Heschel believed that Dr. King was a modern day prophet and Dr. King considered Rabbi Heschel the Jewish conscience of the civil rights movement,” explained Rabbi Rosove.
Bruce Corwin wanted to march for justice, too. He rented a car and drove south to Alabama and Mississippi. He was shocked. Things were far worse than what he had seen in Maryland.
He did not dare join the marches in Alabama. “I’m a white liberal Jew but I was scared. I didn’t want to get beat up. I didn’t want to have my head split open. There were two sides of it: I wanted to touch it, I wanted to feel it but I didn’t want to get hurt,” said Corwin.
After King’s sermon in Hollywood, The Civil Rights movement became more radicalized, and Martin Luther King began speaking out against the Vietnam War, even comparing it to the Holocaust.
Rabbi Rosove said this tested the relationship between Jewish and African American communities. “That upset a lot of Jews because in Jewish conscience there is nothing like the Holocaust. It has a particular reference for Jewish people.“
Jewish support elsewhere in the country wavered, but Temple Israel’s support for African Americans remained strong. The congregation kept close relationships to Black churches during racial unrest in Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992.
Fifty years later, Martin Luther King’s words still inspire the people gathered at Temple Israel of Hollywood for the sermon’s anniversary. Symphanie Chambers, who performs with the Leimert Park Choir, said being in a synagogue for the first time opened her eyes. “Learning that different cultures and different communities can actually come together and work together and vibe together really inspires me and makes me happy.”
Rabbi Rosove is sure this is exactly the attitude Martin Luther King Jr. wished to inspire when he spoke in this Temple 50 years ago. “Our job is not to finish the task. Because we can’t,” he said. “As Jewish tradition tells us, we are not free to desist from trying.”