Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from the right, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma 1965. (Photo courtesy of AP Images)
Editor’s Note: This essay was a finalist in the 2014 Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing contest. Writers chose an American Jew they admired for his/her contribution to humanitarian causes, social justice, medicine or science. In honor of Martin Luther King Day we’re publishing Sara Yadegari’s essay about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an activist and scholar at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Rabbi Heschel lived from 1907-1972.
What defines a hero? A hero is one who embraces the cause of someone else and advances that cause. Heroes are able to influence others and change situations for the better. Heroes are those who overlook their own misfortunes and seek to aid those who are in need. One such hero is Jewish American leader, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel embodies all of these heroic traits as he promoted the century-long American challenge in the realm of human rights and freedom during the 1900s: the struggle to overcome racism.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel experienced a comfortable childhood growing up in Warsaw, Poland. He was descended from a long chain of Orthodox rabbis and aspired to become one as well. As a young adult, he was educated in rabbinic studies at the University of Berlin, but when Heschel was merely 30 years old, he was persecuted by the Gestapo and deported back to Poland. Fortunately, he obtained a visa and left Poland. Despite his luck, Heschel was not foreign to suffering. A large portion of his family perished in German concentration camps. He was deeply affected by the vicious attempts the Nazis used to halt the existence of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Heschel knew that he must take a stance against those who commit the greatest crime against humanity: robbing a person of his rights. He felt compassion for African Americans who were victimized by society, and he became a civil rights activist. Rabbi Heschel wrote numerous books that provided philosophical underpinnings for Jews to direct their religious obligation to help those who are desperate for support. In Chapter Six of his book “The Insecurity Of Freedom” he wrote, “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man — the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
Rabbi Heschel encouraged Jews to aid the underprivileged. He fought endlessly for the rights of African-American men and women and stood proudly among leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. Though Rabbi Heschel and Rev. King differed in their religious beliefs, their ideology was similar. Rabbi Heschel’s understanding of divine empathy emulates Rev. King’s perception of the nature of God’s deep participation within humanity. For both, religion served as a basis for their belief in serving the African-American community and abolishing racism. Rabbi Heschel was the pioneer for the broad Jewish participation of the civil right movement. Unfortunately, the history of the movement occasionally neglects the presence of white supporters, including the cooperation of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Heschel is a hero due to the many actions he took to end racism in America. He used his own experience of persecution to benefit a larger cause. He influenced an incredible number of Jews to take a stand and assist African Americans who were deprived of their rights as citizens. Rabbi Heschel continued to serve as a model to society and left a lasting impression on the history of Jewish Americans.