On a little green island in the midst of a turquoise sea, at the oldest synagogue in continuous use under an American flag, the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, a special Shabbat service was held last Friday evening at which The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas honored high school students of the Virgin Islands who are dedicating their lives to social justice and the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The historic synagogue, with its floor of sand, of a congregation founded in 1796 was packed with black people, some who had never been in it before. “This is my first time,” said Neline Thomas. “I’m of the family of one of the honorees.” She said she knew nothing about Jews—“only what I’ve read in the Bible.”
The event, in its 24th year, was extraordinary, a moving testament to how Jews and African-Americans have long fought together in the United States for social justice. It came on the eve of what is now a national holiday dedicated to Dr. King held on Monday.
On this Shabbat—what Reform Jews now call Shabbat Tzedek—“sabbath for justice,” explained Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, the keynote speaker, “we celebrate Dr. King” and “our shared legacy.” Rabbi Pesner is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and senior vice-president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
The eight recipients of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Awards, from St. Thomas and St. John, were called to the bema one by one by the co-chairs of the Social Action Committee of the congregation and all gave speeches—each one brilliant. They spoke of their work to counter what is a serious homeless problem, in fighting hunger, organizing youth programs, the need for community centers, their work as volunteers helping the elderly and people in hospitals, doing tutoring of children, and other meritorious service. One quoted Dr. King saying, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Another spoke of the need for strict gun control, and this resulted in repeated nods and later big congratulations to him by four senators from the Legislature of the Virgin Islands, among the government dignitaries at the event.
Then Rabbi Pesner went to the bema first saying that the synagogue’s rabbi, Michael Harvey, “didn’t tell me I would have to follow eight of the most articulate young people not only in the history of the Virgin Islands but in the history of the world!”
Yet he followed with his own brilliant address.
He spoke of the sand on the floor and how it represented the sand placed on floors so those enforcing the Inquisition on Spain and Portugal “wouldn’t hear the sounds of Jews praying.” an offense punishable by death. The sand on cellar floors in homes where the Jews worshipped secretly would muffle their prayers. Another explanation, said Rabbi Pesner, is to “remind us of the sand of Egypt” that Jews walked on as they made their Exodus. Jews know “what it was to be enslaved,” said Rabbi Pesner.
The ancestors of the blacks of the Virgin Islands, like other blacks brought centuries-ago to the Western Hemisphere from Africa—came as slaves, taken to the Virgin Islands to work on sugar plantations. The audience was transfixed as Rabbi Pesner spoke.
He detailed the close relationship between Jews and African-Americans in the U.S. civil rights movement including how, at his Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted.
He related the story of a key figure, Kivie Kaplan, a leader in both Reform Judaism and the civil rights movement. Born in Boston of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Kaplan got an early taste of racism in America on a visit to Florida. He arrived at a country club with a sign posted outside: “No Jews, No Dogs.” Kaplan’s black driver commented, said Rabbi Pesner, “They don’t even bother with us.”
Kaplan joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1932, later being elected a member of its national board, and in 1976 he was elected NAACP president, a position he held until his death in 1985. Meanwhile, he was vice chairman of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism.
Kaplan marched with Dr. King, was jailed several times with Dr. King, and went to Mississippi during “Freedom Summer” of 1964 to register voters. In 1965, he marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in the 1965 March on Selma. Other Jews, Rabbi Pesner went on, involved in that and other demonstrations—conducted in the face of police violence—included rabbis, among them Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Rabbi Pesner spoke of the two Jewish civil rights workers—Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—killed with James Chaney by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964.
“We have been marching for 5,000 years since we came out of Egypt and we will be marching another 5,000 years if that is what it takes to build a world of justice!” declared Rabbi Pesner. And the struggle continues, he emphasized.
The “wonderful Voting Act of 1965” was “eviscerated” in 2012 by the current “abominable” U.S. Supreme Court. And today, a “mass disenfranchising of voters” is going on in the U.S. “And guess who is impacted the most?”
In America today, “one in three black men do time in prison, one in six Hispanics, and one in 17 is white,” said Rabbi Pesner. “That is not what God had in mind.”
As for guns, “the U.S. Congress will not pass gun legislation. Every day in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles…people are killed. And who is being eviscerated—communities of color.”
“Just as our forbearers marched and worked together,” said Rabbi Pesner, “the time has come again for all people of all faiths to come together. We can do this! We can do it again!”
And if there is any question that “God is in this house, just listen to the words of those wonderful young people.”
Rabbi Pesner received a standing ovation.
Donald Pomeranz, the president of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, from the
bema said “this is our favorite event of the year…seeing our community come together.” And he thanked the man who originated the idea for the event, Lenny Smollett, long a school guidance counselor on St. Thomas.
Interviewed afterwards, Smollett spoke of coming to the Virgin Islands from Rockaway in Queens. “This is a small town, a pretty place with some big city problems,” he said. He envisioned the awards ceremony as an event to “honor the kids” doing such good work, to further extend the congregation’s involvement in the community and to “bring the community into the synagogue.”
The final benediction of the service by the warm, young Rabbi Harvey: “Dr. King once spoke of the messianic age that we all can bring. ‘I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be plain and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’ Let his dream be our dream. Let his hope be our hope. May all in this sanctuary join together as one in the task of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. May the old teach the young, and may the young teach their lessons to the old. May the teachers teach the students, and the students teach the teachers. May we no longer allow our differences to divide us, but rather focus on our similarities, most notably the hope for a better world. May this be our banner, and may we march together through the streets of St. Thomas. And may our cry be heard beyond our island, as we announce to the whole world that we too still have a dream.”
With Rabbi Harvey, who came to the synagogue six months ago after his ordination from Hebrew Union College providing harmony on his guitar, all the people who filled the synagogue—blacks and Jews—stood hand-in-hand and with great energy and emotion sang “We Shall Overcome!” The last stanza: “We’ll walk hand in hand…We shall live in peace…We shall overcome.”
There are about 120 families and singles who are members of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas. Sephardic Jews first settled on the Virgin Islands in 1655. The first synagogue on St. Thomas was built in 1803. The present building was dedicated in 1833. The St. Thomas Synagogue was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1997. It is in the heart of Charlotte Amalie at 2116 Crystal Gade. The U.S. purchased St. Thomas and several other of the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917. The oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere is on Curacao also in the Caribbean.
Eva Cooper, whose late husband, Leslie, was a president of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, said the island has a “very tight-knit Jewish community”
Helene Smollett, Lenny’s husband, a teacher of reading on St. Thomas, said there is “probably a bigger sense of being Jewish here” than in Hicksville on Long Island from where she came.
Lou Minion, who came from New Jersey, said being a Jew on St. Thomas is “like being a Jewish person anywhere. There are challenges such as the availability of kosher food.” He offered, “The Jewish community here is very involved in the community.”
Editor’s note: Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury. He has regularly visited the U.S. and British Virgin Islands through the years.