At March on Washington, Shaare Tefila Members Mark 60th Anniversary

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Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. (Public domain)

In 1963, most of the hundreds of thousands in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom had to listen to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and other speakers far from the stage at the Lincoln Memorial.

Last Saturday, for the march’s 60th anniversary, a group from Shaare Tefila Congregation found a shady spot near the Lincoln Memorial and watched the event on a large screen.

“It was inspiring to hear all of the different people participating,” said Rabbi Jonah Layman, who led the group of 20 from the Olney synagogue.

Six decades after King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech,” many of the speakers declared that dream was in jeopardy — that America had slid backwards in its struggle to overcome hatred and bigotry.

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The speakers included the Rev. Al Sharpton, King’s 15-year-old grandchild, Yolanda King, actor Sasha Baron Cohen and Rabbi David Wolpe and Jonathan Greenblatt, both of ADL. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) spoke, as did Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), who was elected to serve in the district held by the late civil rights icon John Lewis.

“They billed it as a continuation of the concerns and issues they marched for 60 years ago, said Barry Polisar, 69, of Silver Spring

Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, Polisar said he was always involved in political and social action causes.

“There have been so many issues that have reignited the spirit of activism in our lives and the people around us,” he said. “I think as a Jewish person, there’s a foundational responsibility to speak out for those who are oppressed.”

Added his wife, Roni Polisar, 68, “We just have to make a very strong statement that this is what makes our country great: justice.”

Lisa Hedgepeth, 60, the social action chair at Shaare Tefila Congregation, was part of the group.

“It was very peaceful, very inspiring,” she said. “Who knows what will come of it, but I feel that the collaboration was genuine. It was a good turnout. It was representative of the demographics across race, culture and age.”

Shaare Tefila’s group includes, from left, Lee Hedgepeth, Patricia Greene, Lenore Layman, Rabbi Jonah Layman, Jason Wolf, Ben Wolf, Arielle Wolf, Elissa Wolf, Lisa Hedgepeth. Photo by Babette Cohn

There appeared to be a genuine friendship among the speakers, especially between event co-chairs Sharpton and Greenblatt. “There was a respect and understanding of each other’s cultures, a genuine desire to work together,” Hedgepeth said.

“We are living in a divided country,” she said. “Many groups were represented that have been marginalized, hated and attacked. We all know how it feels and we don’t need to say ours is worse or we’ve had it harder,” Hedgepeth continued. “We all have suffered hate and together our experiences are similar enough that we understand what it feels like and our power is just greater together and the more diverse we are the better.”

Babette Cohn, director of education and programming for Shaare Tefila, attended the march’s 25th anniversary in 1988.

“It was the end of Reagan’s presidency and a different time for us in America, a more moderate Republican administration,” Cohn said.

The ADL asked the Conservative movement to lead Shabbat services for those staying near the site of Saturday’s rally. There was a service, dinner and speakers for 500 people in attendance.

“It was people of all ages from across the country who were there for the rally and enjoying Shabbat dinner together,” Layman said, adding, “I’m glad that we had the opportunity to affirm Dr. King’s message from 60 years ago and to carry that message going forward.”

Layman said Jewish participation was important because “social justice is a universal concern. It is a Jewish concern. Jews are part of the world community and we are tasked by God and the prophets to be a light unto the nations through our moral, ethical and religious example. The fact that Dr. King quoted the prophets from the Hebrew scriptures 60 years ago, affirms the eternal message that Judaism teaches us.” ■

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.

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