Above: The three surviving members of the Higher Ground Group — Rabbi Alvin Sugarman (second from left), the Rev. Joanna Adams and Imam Plemon El-Amin — talk with Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta President Alicia Philipp (left) during the first Friendship Luncheon of Interfaith Community Initiatives. (Photo by Nassar Madyun)
The first Friendship Luncheon of Interfaith Community Initiatives provided perhaps one final time for the Higher Ground Group to come together in public.
The interfaith clergy group, convened by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta in 2010, ended its work in early 2015.
One of the four members, the Rev. Joe Roberts of Ebenezer Baptist Church, died in February 2015, leaving Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple, the Rev. Joanna Adams of First Presbyterian Church and Imam Plemon El-Amin of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam (since named to the national Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council) to hold a reunion panel discussion at the Twelve Hotel at Atlantic Station with moderator Alicia Philipp.
“We have one common soul and one common creator, and we are all genuinely brothers and sisters,” said Rabbi Sugarman, who said Higher Ground was like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that just wouldn’t end.
The event was a Jewish coming-out party in some ways for ICI under the leadership of Judy Marx, the organization’s first executive director. The crowd of more than 200 people included tables for The Temple and Temple Sinai, and other Jewish organizations involved in outreach and interfaith work, such as the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, Jewish Family & Career Services, and American Jewish Committee, were represented.
Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser, who works with the Center for Israel Education and is a veteran of the World Pilgrims trips associated with ICI, led the pre-meal blessings.
“We need a lot more reaching across boundaries,” said the Rev. Angela Harrington Rice, an executive producer for Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters and ICI’s board president, who added that ICI wants “more than your contributions. We want your involvement.”
She got it from the Higher Ground Group.
“The danger here is that we’re preaching to the choir,” Rabbi Sugarman said.
Speaking at a time when Donald Trump’s presidential victory was unthinkable to most in the room, Rabbi Sugarman said Trump’s campaign bore the invisible stain of racism and should have used the motto “Make America white again.”
He also complained about the bad rap Islam has received in the United States.
“Human beings are better than that,” Adams said. “Our country is better than that.”
El-Amin joined the others in promoting the value of conversations with people who are different, but he warned about confusion and divisions that can arise from the different terminology various religions use to describe similar ideas.
Adams’ proposed solution: Don’t just talk; take action. Find problems in the community, and work together to solve them, she said, crediting Rabbi Sugarman with educating her on the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Rabbi Sugarman cited a phrase in Genesis to help guide their efforts: “Be thou a blessing.”
“Isn’t that what we’re all about as human beings?” he said. “Isn’t that our job description?”