Deep in my heart I do believe... we shall overcome... and it will be okay!

Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., killed a week before he was to attend Rabbi Heschel's Seder.

By RABBI LEVI WEIMAN-KELMAN
April 7, 2009 10:12
2 minute read.
Deep in my heart I do believe... we shall overcome... and it will be okay!

Levi Weiman-Kelman 88 248. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The day that Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States I found myself staring at a photograph of three men - two rabbis and a minister. The rabbis are Abraham Joshua Heschel and my father, Wolfe Kelman. The minister is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The setting is the Rabbinical Assembly convention in March 1968. Dr. King had just addressed the hundreds of Conservative rabbis at the conference. My father, as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, had invited him. They had met before. Heschel and my father marched with Dr. King. There is the more famous photograph of Rabbi Heschel, Dr. King and Rev. William Sloane Coffin marching in Selma, Alabama. When asked about the significance of the march, Heschel said: "I felt like my legs were praying!" These words have inspired countless Jewish social activists. My father's commitment to civil rights had a liturgical impact as well. At our Passover Seder, when we would open the door of our Manhattan apartment for Elijah the Prophet, we would - like most traditional Jews - sing Eliyahu HaNavi to symbolize our hope for the messianic era." (Elijah is meant to be the herald of the Messiah.) At some point in my childhood my father added the anthem of the civil rights movement "We Shall Overcome" (In Hebrew, Anu Nitgaber). The Hebrew translation of the words "deep in my heart, I do believe" beautifully merged medieval Jewish philosophy and contemporary political action with the words "Ani ma'amin be'emunah shlemah, nitgaber bevo hayom" (I believe with a perfect faith that we shall overcome some day), echoing the 13 principles of faith of Maimonides. Looking at the photograph on my office wall takes me back to that rabbinic gathering in early spring 1968. The other featured speaker at the convention was Yitzhak Rabin. It was less that a year since the Six Day War. My father introduced him to the Assembly as the first Jewish general to conquer Jerusalem in over 2,000 years. That evening, March 25, Heschel invited Dr. King to join him for seder at his home in New York on April 12. Dr. King accepted Heschel's invitation. Tragically, he was killed by the assassin's bullet on April 4. I look at the photograph and I think back to the convention where, as a 15-year-old, I shook hands with both Yitzhak Rabin and Dr. King. I am filled with sadness that Rabin's vision of peace for the State of Israel is further away than ever. I am overcome with emotion that the two rabbis and the minister did not live to see Obama, the first African American elected president of the United States. I am amazed that I merited that privilege. This year at our Seder we will open the door for Elijah, and I will sing Anu Nitgaber - "We Shall Overcome" - filled with awe for the dreams that have come true for so many in my former homeland. We will also sing David Broza's song "Yiheyeh Tov" (It will be okay), praying for peace and better days for Israel. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem. He is also active in Shomrei Mishpat - Rabbis for Human Rights and teaches prayer and liturgy at the Hebrew Union College.


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