By Vicki M. Leopold

Celebrations abound to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. around the time of his birthday holiday each January. The focus is usually on what the civil rights leader said and did and how he united the community to fight bigotry, hatred and unfair laws.

During Friday services Jan. 15 at Congregation B’nai Israel, one of King’s goals was realized.

Dr. Vanessa Johnson and B’nai Israel President Sharon Hudgens

Dr. Vanessa Johnson and B’nai Israel President Sharon Hudgins

Congregants from Flat Rock A.M.E. Church (the oldest black church in Fayetteville), the church’s pastor (who is also the newly elected mayor of Fayetteville), other clergy and community representatives joined B’nai Israel members in worship. Two communities of different faiths and history thus came together, united in spirit, inspired by songs and focused on inclusiveness.

Fayetteville’s first elected black mayor, the Rev. Ed Johnson, addressed the joint congregation of about 150 people, saying: “Congregation B’nai Israel is blessed with Rabbi (Rick) Harkavy, who embodies the spirit of Martin Luther King.”

The mayor’s wife, Dr. Vanessa Johnson, joined the synagogue president, Sharon Hudgins, in lighting the Shabbat candles as the congregation chanted along.

Dr. Arlene Presser, a consultant to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Minority Health who is a member of B’nai Israel and black, spoke with conviction and passion about the need for inclusiveness and community unity to fight injustice.

She traced her maternal line to Ghana and noted that more than 120 countries have Jewish communities. “Jews in many hues,” she said.

Music can inspire and lift people in ways that words cannot. The synagogue choral group, Rhythm and Jews, and the church gospel choir, Voices of Inspiration, took turns singing and brought excitement and enthusiasm to the service. People in attendance said they felt a part of something important.

Rabbi Harkavy and the mayor, who attended B’nai Israel’s public Chanukah menorah lighting beneath the Fayetteville Christmas tree Dec. 6, agreed that the King Day service was just the first of several joint events for the two congregations.