Ridgefield synagogue celebrates MLK’s legacy at Sabbath services

RIDGEFIELD – Sabbath traditions and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a peaceful world intermingled at a special service Friday night at Congregation Shir Shalom of Westchester and Fairfield Counties.

“Too often Martin Luther King Day is treated as a long weekend,” said Rabbi David Reiner to the more than 30 members of the congregation who came to Friday’s service.

Reiner reminded the congregation that Sabbath or Shabbat, in the Jewish tradition, is a day of peace and joy, or “the world as it should be,” and how this tradition connects to King’s dream of  how the world could be.

In addition to reciting traditional prayers and singing hymns to welcome Shabbat, the congregation heard dramatic readings and songs performed by special guest Kimberly Wilson. A resident of Westport, Wilson was awarded the Best Playwright Award in 2016 for her one-woman show “A Journey” and has performed her one-woman shows in Connecticut and New York for Black History programs for 27 years.

Wilson invited the congregation to connect with their stories on how they rise as she read Maya Angelou’s poem “And Still I Rise.” 

Reiner invited congregants to sing and send shalom wishes to friends and family, reminding them that shalom “is more than peace” and comes from the same root as a word for “wholeness.”

“At points of our lives, we may not be able to find peace but we may be able to find a sense of wholeness,” he said.

“In the celebration of this weekend, we speak of freedom,” Wilson said, and Cantor Deborah Katchko Gray joined Wilson at the altar to play guitar while Wilson sang “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” an anthem for the civil rights movement. Congregants followed Wilson in clapping to the beat and a few people sang along.

A video testimonial created by Gigi Van Dyke, director of the Serendipity Chorale, was projected at the front of the synagogue. Seated at her piano, Van Dyke shared the story of James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist and writer of the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which became known as the black national anthem.

After the congregation sang hymns of rising and the mourner’s kaddish, Wilson shared her work in learning about “the faith side” of the Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr.

Wilson said she was seven years old when King was assassinated, and King’s death was the first time she had seen her father cry. Recalling “the journey to the truth of that emotion,” she said, “I had to find out who that man was, I wanted to understand why the community was so upset… When I saw my father cry and I saw this energy from all the communities around the world angered and inflamed with hate, I had never seen that before.”

Wilson said she had to find a way to “be open and learn” when she saw children her own age experiencing anger and trauma in their homes as a result of King’s death. By learning about King’s work as a reverend, she said she wanted to understand “what he did and how I could be someone to make a difference in my community.”

With tears of joy on her face, Wilson encouraged the congregation to say aloud the qualities they wanted to see in the world in which they live.

“In this room, there is no doubt we shall overcome,” Wilson said, and the congregation sang “We Shall Overcome” to conclude the service.