Rolling Ridge Peace Conference looks back at Civil Rights era

July 21, 2015

About 90 people gathered at Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center in North Andover for the fifth annual “Conference on Peace-Making, Earth Tending and Inter-Faith Reverence” on July 20, 2015.

Guest speaker was Dr. Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, whose talk was titled “Selma, Civil Rights & the Jewish People: The Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel.”

Dr. Heschel was introduced by Padraic O’Hare, former director of the Center for the Study of Jewish, Christian, Muslim Relations at Merrimack College.
O’Hare said: The “excellence of her work and depth of contributions and commitment” have been recognized in many ways including honorary degrees and visiting professorships.

“(She has) written works and brought together outstanding collections of essays on multi-culturalism and American Jews, on being a Jewish feminist … on Jewish and Muslim feminist thought and life … (as well as) a superb collection of previously very hard to access writings of her father – “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity” – that is indispensable to those of us who do Heschel research and those of us who are moved by his vision of faithfulness,” O’Hare said.

Speaking of her books “The Aryan Jesus” and “Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus,” O’Hare said: “Like the great man and great legacy of which she will speak with us tonight, our speaker herself is often, mostly fearless.”
Dr. Susannah Heschel
Dr. Heschel introduced the discussion of her father’s friendship with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by talking about the friendship between another Jew and Christian, Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

“This friendship in the late 18th century in Berlin in some sense inaugurates modern Jewish history … it is a very symbolic moment … this is when it begins, the entry of Jews into European culture, civilization, philosophy,” she said. “The relationship between my father and Martin Luther King stands as the bookend of the other era – after all that transpired, after all that happened.”

Her father came to the U.S. from Warsaw as a refugee from Hitler. His ancestors, she said, were “great Hasidic rebbes, whom her father called “people of religious nobility.”

“(My father) could have easily turned away from the Christian world,” she said. “He could have isolated himself as a scholar, but he chose not to do that.”
Instead he attended a conference on religion and race organized by the National Conference on Christians and Jews in January 1963 in Chicago. It was there that he met Dr. King, and the two “immediately, as we say today, bonded,” Dr. Heschel said.

Rabbi Heschel opened his speech at that conference by saying: “At the first conference on religion and race the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.”

“It’s a speech of passion,” Dr. Heschel said. “You can see the passion even in these opening words which startled the whole audience.”

Rabbi Heschel went on: “Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s
Rabbi Abraham Heschel,second from right, with Dr. King during
the third march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, March 21,1965.
gravest threat to man.  … It’s a maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason; the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking. It’s … a cancer of the soul.”

But Rabbi Heschel cautioned against seeing the problem as intractable, saying:
“Racism is an evil of tremendous power, but God’s will transcends all powers. To surrender to despair is to surrender to evil. It is important to feel anxiety, but sinful to wallow in despair.”

In 1963, Rabbi Heschel was invited by President John F. Kennedy to a conference at the White House. On June 16, three days before Kennedy would submit a bill on Civil Rights to Congress, Rabbi Heschel sent a telegram to the president:

… “Likelihood exists the Negro problem will be like weather – everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. … We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. …”
Rabbi Heschel called on the president to “declare a state of moral emergency … the hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

“I would tell you that, this telegram, I would change one or two words, but I would issue it today after what’s going on here in this country,” Dr. Heschel said. “And I would say when people are murdered in a house of prayer while they are praying, I question whether any of us has the right to continue to pray, and I have felt that way for a long time … “

Quoting her father, Dr. Heschel said, “To be religious and not speak out about what the government is doing in our name, that’s blasphemy.”

At the beginning of the evening, Rolling Ridge Executive Director Larry Peacock announced the receipt of a grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation of Philadelphia to start a new program at Rolling Ridge for clergy in cross-cultural appointments. It will focus on black leadership for seminarians, pastors and ordained clergy who are “in ministry in this crazy world where racism is all too prevalent.”

Dr. Imani-Shelia Newsome-Camara, a member of the New England Conference, helped write the grant and will lead the six retreats over two years.

“We will continue this work of listening and working with persons across traditions both interfaith and interracial,” Rev. Peacock said, “and seek to be a place of conversation, dialog and moving forward to make this the beloved community that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel envisioned.”