Statement on Poor People’s Campaign
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, which took place shortly after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the great moral leader and architect of the campaign. To commemorate that historic event and to refocus the American people on the critical issues of racism and poverty, a coalition of religious groups and other people of conscience have planned nonviolent demonstrations throughout the country during the next two months. The leadership at JTS believes this new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is an occasion for serious reflection and action on the part of the Jewish community.
The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign was supported by a broad coalition of Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox Jewish organizations. Only ten days before he was killed, Dr. King appeared before the 68th annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly to explain the need for the campaign and to request the help of our rabbinic leadership and the Jewish communities they led. In introducing him, JTS Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel asked the assembled Conservative rabbis: “Where does God dwell in America today? Is [God] at home with those who are complacent, indifferent to other people’s agony, devoid of mercy? Is [God] not rather with the poor and the contrite in the slums?” Rabbi Heschel ended by saying, “The situation of the poor in America is our plight, our sickness. To be deaf to their cry is to condemn ourselves.”
Dr. King believed that poverty and racism are inextricably linked and that “the religious community, being the chief moral guardian of the overall community, should really take the primary responsibility in dealing with this problem of racism.” Rabbi Heschel agreed. “Racism is worse than idolatry,” he declared at the 1963 National Conference on Religion and Race. It is “unmitigated evil” because it contravenes the spirt of religion which requires us “to remember that humanity is God’s beloved child.”
Now, 50 years later, our society continues to confront the twin evils of racism and poverty. All of us who take Torah seriously must become involved in the efforts to create a more just and compassionate society. For many of us, participation in this year’s Poor People’s Campaign will provide an important avenue to express our support and moral concern. Many of our JTS alumni, students, staff, and faculty will undoubtedly be propelled by their deep religious commitments and the model of prophetic figures such as Rabbi Heschel and Reverend King to join with other religious leaders in the nonviolent demonstrations that will be part of the Poor People’s Campaign. Rabbi Heschel’s preaching emerges from the prophetic biblical tradition and the teachings of the Talmudic rabbis. The rabbis of the rabbinic period had an acute sensitivity to the crushing pain and societal consequences of poverty, understanding poverty as worse than all the plagues one could imagine (Baba Batra 166b). We are proud that the Torah we espouse is being put into action by our community’s active involvement.
Other members of the JTS community will engage in the work to eradicate poverty and racism through other actions and organizations. Whatever steps they take in advancing the goal of a moral society devoid of poverty and racism, they will reflect the ideals of the Torah that Rabbi Heschel taught in 1968 and the Torah we teach at JTS today. It is the same Torah that our prophets proclaimed more than two thousand years ago: “Seek justice, relieve the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17).