Every year, people worldwide recognize the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts for racial justice and equality on his birthday. Kol Ami, the Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community in Arlington, is continuing the legacy this weekend, while also celebrating Tu B’Shevat.
“The connections between the Jewish and Black experience of slavery, of redemption, of liberation are very powerful,” said Rabbi Gilah Langner.
The Rev. Carol Thomas Cissel, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, will join Kol Ami’s Shabbat morning service. The Torah discussion will be based on the anthology “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race” by Jesmyn Ward.
Musical guest will be Tom Prasada-Rao. Langner said she was inspired by Prasada-Rao’s song “$20 Bill,” which he wrote after the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
The song ends with the lines, “Sometimes the law/ Is the devil’s last straw/ The future unfulfilled/ Like the dream they killed/ For a $20 bill.”
Floyd was arrested for buying a pack of cigarettes with a $20 bill that the store clerk suspected of being counterfeit.
“It adds just this incredible extra spiritual energy that we are still having to cross that sea and still having to reach for deliverance, and still having to sing for redemption for racial justice in this country,” Langner said, referring to the Israelites’ crossing to the sea, commemorated this weekend on Shabbat Shirah. “That is not just an ancient commemoration, it’s real every day in this country.”
King had a number of prominent Jewish allies, including Stanley Levison, of the American Jewish Congress. Levison arranged for King to attend the 1958 American Jewish Congress Convention where he spoke about the shared oppression of Jews and Blacks.
“My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility,” King said during his address.
Langner said the coincidence this year of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Shabbat Shirah and Tu B’Shevat reminds her of the intersectionality of race, faith and the environment.
“Racial justice is a big part of the climate issue as well. Everything is interlinked and a part of the same struggle. We have a lot of work to do,” the rabbi said.
Kol Ami’s Tu B’Shevat celebration will feature skits, songs and videos. Langner said she hopes that there will also be conversations about fighting climate change. She hopes to encourage more people to switch their energy sources to renewable alternatives and work with organizations like the Jewish Earth Alliance.
“Advocacy is really the way to go at this point. Smaller efforts are just not as effective in the face of such global climate emergency. Lifting our voice is what we need to do,” she said.
The Shabbat Shirah service will be held Jan.15 at 10 a.m. The Tu B’Shevat celebration will take place on Jan.16 at 5 p.m. To register for both events, email [email protected] or visit kolamivirginia.org.