A Loosening of Leopards

I had the privilege of welcoming Koach Baruch Frazier and Dove Kent to Judea Reform Congregation on Friday, January 12, 2018. My framing remarks…

A tweet that shows up in my feed every so often these days says something like this: “Have you ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights era? Stop wondering; you’re doing it.”

It is in that spirit that our Adult Education and Social Action Committees conceived of this evening’s program, which is intended less to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr’s accomplishments than to continue his unfinished work. Dove Kent and Koach Baruch Frazier are here tonight to challenge us, to push us, perhaps to make us uncomfortable.

Our reasons for adopting this approach are reflected in a brief parable of Kafka’s. He writes:

Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.

Too often, MLK commemorations in synagogues are exercises in taming leopards. The arrival is all too easy to calculate, the ceremony all too easy to plan: a few quotes from “I have a Dream,” a talk by a well-known African-American politician or pastor, a touch of Heschel, maybe Mi Chamocha to the tune of “We Shall Overcome” or another Civil Rights-era anthem. Something that ought to be powerful and subversive, a real “Leopards in the Temple” moment, becomes just another part of the ceremony.

But Judea Reform Congregation has never been about simply performing the ceremony. We’ve always been about responding to the moment at hand, to what Dr. King would have called “the fierce urgency of now.”

This synagogue was established in midst of desegregation, and our first Rabbi came to us by way of North Carolina Hillel precisely because of that crucible. As the story goes, Rabbi Ef Rosenzweig left his job on campus amidst continued conflict with statewide B’nai B’rith leaders and donors who counseled “patience” and warned him that his integrationist stance threatened their livelihood, and thus his own. The pioneer JRC families who engaged Ef as their first Rabbi established activism as a part of this congregation’s DNA.

Throughout our nearly six decades in Durham and Chapel Hill we have sought to live up to our origin story. Liberation for Soviet Jewry. A two-state solution for Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. Economic and ecological justice at home and around the world. The right to marry. Access to the ballot. Justice and compassion for immigrants and refugees. Living our faith in the public arena is quite simply who we are.

And we come together tonight not to celebrate that legacy but to advance it, not for self-congratulatory ceremony but for the loosening of leopards. Consider: we live in a moment of rising antisemitism, when chants of “Jews will not replace us” ring out in the night. We live in a moment in which white supremacy is championed at the highest levels of government, with public policy around everything from taxes to drug enforcement to immigration to voting rights all targeting people of color. We live in a moment of rising economic inequality, and of the oppression of women. Have you ever wondered what you would have done in a moment of great national crisis? Stop wondering; you’re doing it.

Dr. King recognized early on, and taught with increasing force and clarity over the course of his ministry, that the liberation of each being is bound up with the liberation of all beings. The right to sit at the front of the bus or at a lunch counter, the right to vote, the right to live where you choose, the right to earn a living wage, the right not to kill and die in an unjust war…to fight for one, one needed to fight for all.

I mention this because Dove Kent and Koach Frazier’s lives as teachers and activists have been lived in the light of that truth. They work at the intersection of race, class, gender, and faith, building power in order to bend the moral arc toward justice. I’m so glad they are with us tonight…

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