Recalling MLK Jr. and Maurice Eisendrath
by Rabbi Everett Gendler
An e-mail arrived from the indefatigable Art Waskow reminding us that April 4th was the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The reminder included a photo from a demonstration at the Arlington National Cemetery along with valuable excerpts from King’s prophetic remarks about Vietnam delivered at Riverside Church.
The photo showed Rabbi Heschel to one side of King, and this prompted me to look at another photo of that demonstration. In this fuller one, King is flanked on the other side by Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah, and beside them a youngish flag-carrying rabbi from Princeton, NJ (the latter, I).
I feel moved to share this with you on the 45th anniversary of King’s tragic removal from our midst because we often forget to mention Maurice in the reminiscences about King. The Arlington National Cemetery ceremony was important, moving, and not heavily attended by public figures. Notably absent were any representatives of the Urban League or the NAACP. They disapproved of King’s challenging publicly the morality of our policy on Vietnam since LBJ, supporter of civil rights, was also the primary advocate of that very policy. But at this particular event there was Heschel’s blessed supportive presence, and there also was Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah in further support. Those of us who knew and cherished Maurice are fewer with the passing of the years, so this seems an appropriate time to mention him with the respect and affection that so many of us felt for him.
That Maurice came with a Torah to this particular act of moral witnessing captures perfectly some of his most admired qualities. This march, held on the sacred ground of our national cemetery, was solemn, not high spirited. It absorbed the painful testimony of surroundings that expressed human dedication, courage, suffering and sacrifice. The stated proposition of the march, that our engagement as a nation in Vietnam betrayed the basic American values for which these deceased had offered their lives, was not at that time a crowd pleaser. Pragmatic institutional calculations probably said, not great for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) fundraising, especially among big givers, and Maurice dearly loved and devoted his life to that institution. But justice is justice, the truth must be proclaimed, and so Maurice proclaimed it in his characteristically vigorous, energetic way. The real bottom line for UAHC (now URJ), after all, was prophetic Judaism, and Maurice was accountant par excellence in those calculations.
At this especially difficult period in King’s life, severely criticized by the leaders of the major civil rights organizations, suffering daily threats to his own life and to his beloved family, can we imagine what the presence of Rabbi Heschel, Rabbi Eisendrath, and the sefer Torah must have contributed to King’s morale and sense of Divine support? The attached photo may convey some of the mood.
As in life all of us were and are able to offer support to the righteous among us, so do the memories of those righteous ones, of King, of Heschel, and of Eisendrath, bless and sustain us.
Rabbi Everett Gendler is retired and lives in Great Barrington, MA.
Originally published at RavBlog, the blog of the Central Conference of American Rabbis