Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Los Angeles, holding a sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood just a few weeks before the marches in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. Last month, the congregation celebrated the anniversary of this historic moment.
During the commemoration, Martin Luther King's recorded words filled the sanctuary of Temple Israel of Hollywood. He had talked about the Hebrew people's escape from slavery in Egypt. Slavery - an experience deeply rooted in both African American and Jewish history. King urged both communities to walk towards the Promised Land together.
"Our community here has been proud of this moment ever since. Our members see it as a badge of honor that Dr. King spoke here," said John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.
Rosove's office is where Martin Luther King and then-Rabbi Max Nussbaum first met in the '60s. He explained that many of the white people marching alongside Martin Luther King were Jews.
Bruce Corwin was one of the supporters; he was a 25-year-old student when King spoke at Temple Israel of Hollywood. "It was a big night, like the pope was coming to our synagogue," Corwin recalled.
Corwin had traveled to Maryland with a group of fellow students two years earlier to help integrate lunch counters. They sat in coffee shops saying they wouldn't leave until the owner agreed to serve black people and were arrested. So when Martin Luther King came to Hollywood Corwin could not wait to hear him speak.
"This was Dr. Martin Luther King coming to our place! The place that had spoken out through Dr. Nussbaum about the importance of human rights and human dignity. This was a big deal!"
Progressive Jews were some of Dr. King's closest advisors, one of the movement's most vocal supporters was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had escaped internment in 1939. By 1965 he was teaching Jewish ethics in New York. The influential theologian marched from Selma to Montgomery barely three feet away from Dr. King.
"Rabbi Heschel believed that Dr. King was a modern day prophet and Dr. King considered Rabbi Heschel the Jewish conscience of the civil rights movement," explained Rabbi Rosove.
Fifty years later, Martin Luther King's words still inspire the people gathered at Temple Israel of Hollywood for the sermon's anniversary. "Our job is not to finish the task. Because we can't," he said. "As Jewish tradition tells us, we are not free to desist from trying."
Produced as part of KCRW's Independent Producer ProjectZum Original