Full Speech Transcript:
Robert F. Smith: Champions of Jewish Values International Awards 2020
March 3, 2020
Thank you so much for your kind words, Elisha, and thank you for everything you do to carry on your father’s legacy.
This award means the world to me. Rabbi Shmuley, I’m honored by your invitation.
As Chairman of Carnegie Hall, I’m pleased to welcome you here to this special place. Welcome to MY HOUSE…..It seems fitting for us to be here tonight.
Music has the power to bridge time, and culture to bring people together – and no place embodies that more than Carnegie Hall.
This is where a soprano named Sissieretta Jones broke the color barrier back in 1893.
Where Pete Seeger sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Where Isaac Stern performed more than 200 times before leading the effort that saved this incredible building from demolition.
And where Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, Jessye Norman, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Itzhak Perlman, and the great Count Basie awed and inspired.
Step inside Carnegie Hall, and the promise of America is vivid and enduring.
It is this promise I want to speak of tonight: the promise of ties that bind us together.
In fact, it was at Carnegie Hall where Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois joined Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in 1945 to conduct a meeting for the defense of Israel after the end of WWII. We have a history of African Americans and the sons and daughters of Israel coming together to aid and support each other in liberating our collective spirits.
Our communities, our cultures, our country.
There’s a certain poetry to the timing of this event where we gather to celebrate our common values.
Just two days ago, leaders from across our country gathered in Selma, Alabama, to mark the 55th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march.
My generation grew up with the images of those peaceful protestors crossing the Pettis bridge seared in our memories.
Men and women. Black and white. Reverends and Rabbis.
The Jewish community’s leadership in the Civil Rights movement is one of history’s most neglected truths.
More than half the lawyers who volunteered their services to the movement were Jewish. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linked arms with Dr. King on the Selma bridge and said, “I felt like my legs were praying.”
Much is made of the divisions and anger in our society today. Many of us are rightly concerned about the divide between the African American and Jewish communities.
I am here to say that anyone who propagates this fear and division simply doesn’t understand our common experience and common bond.
The Jewish people and the African American people share a birthright burden. We are wanderers in search of a place to call home, to plant roots, to build community.
These places do exist.
The neighborhood in North East Denver where I grew up wasn’t affluent, but we looked out for one another. We weren’t middle class, we were striving class. When my father earned his Doctorate, our whole neighborhood came by our house to congratulate him, because his achievement belonged to all of us.
I was bussed across town to Carson Elementary, where I learned and played alongside some kids, many of which did not look like me. Many of my classmates were Jewish, and we sang songs for Hanukah together, attended Passover together, and played in the jazz band together.
I’m not suggesting the complexities of our world have solutions this simple. What I am suggesting is that we can begin to heal our world when we acknowledge the similarities in the burdens, we carry… and work together to liberate them.
You can’t have lived the life I have without understanding that this work begins in our schools. I grew up watching my mother, who was a local school teacher and then a principal, send a $25 check each month to the United Negro College Fund, for over 50 years. This was in the days before online payments, so she would write a check, address an envelope, stamp it, and bring it to the post office. I watched her make the effort – each and every month….that was an expression of our family values….and that had meaning!
I saw my Father engage for decades in insuring that the young people in my community had food, educational support through driving the Head Start program, and putting effort forward to insure voter registration infrastructure was a priority….this at a time when my people finally gained full access to the bounty of America….8 generations after our arrival…
It was this in my mind when…..as I stood on that stage at commencement at Morehouse College last Spring…I was overcome with a bittersweet feeling….as the first generation of my family to have all their rights in this country….. looking out over a sea of 400 young men in front of me that were celebrating the greatest accomplishment of their lives…. They were on the verge of soaring, and yet they, and their families, were weighed down by the burden of federal student loan debt.
It was also not lost on me that it was 400 years since 1619 and an act of liberating their spirits was appropriate for me, a black man to do.
I imagined the feeling of lightness if they could start their careers without that burden. Perhaps they would start a business, or take a job working for a lower salary but greater social purpose, or buy a home and invest in their community sooner.
This work is all about liberating the human spirit. These are the values that I cherish, and the values that we share, the values I learned at home.
If there was any question about the commonality of these values between the African American and Jewish people, we need look no further than Dr. King’s famous sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in which he reflected on the Jewish tradition of “Tikkun Olam” — To repair the world:
“I want to be on your right side or your left side,” Dr. King said, “In love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world…a new world.”
Let’s honor the tradition of linking arms and walking together.
Let’s honor the spirit of the Talmud that vigorous debate makes us stronger, and even in disagreement, we are brothers and sisters.
Let’s never allow the ties that bind us to fray.
And let’s work together each day to make our old world new.
Thank you very much…and thank you for welcoming me and my family into your tribe.