In any other year, The Temple’s sanctuary would have been filled for the annual Shabbat service that honors the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
This year, as a COVID-19 precaution, the pews were empty on Jan. 15, which would have been the 91st birthday of the slain civil rights icon. The Temple’s 36th annual MLK Shabbat — and the 13th in conjunction with Ebenezer Baptist Church, the downtown church that was King’s spiritual home — was held virtually, with pre-recorded segments edited together.
It has been customary for Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist, to preach from The Temple’s pulpit. But he delivered his sermon this year from Ebenezer. Clergy from both congregations participated, as did Anat Sultan-Dadon, Consul General of Israel to the Southeastern United States.
The program began online at 7 p.m., but a cyber attack prevented an unknown number of viewers from accessing it for more than an hour on The Temple’s website, YouTube or Facebook.
“Presumably, The Temple was singled out by a racist and anti-Semitic group or individual bent on silencing our joint Temple-Ebenezer Baptist Church MLK Jr. Shabbat,” congregation president Kent Alexander wrote in an email to The Temple’s membership.
Alexander said that the website service provider — later identified as ShulCloud — determined that “‘malicious user agents had continuously loaded The Temple website with the objective of shutting it down. In doing so, they blocked access not only to The Temple, but to every other synagogue client website across the country. Eventually, access was restored for all, but The Temple was last. Our site was down for over an hour into the service. Mark [Jacobson, The Temple’s executive director] was told this was the largest-ever attack affecting the provider’s network of client synagogues.”
The AJT sought, but as of press time had not received, comment from ShulCloud, which, according to published reports, serves some 1,200 congregations worldwide.
The incident is being investigated by the Secure Community Network (a program serving Jewish communities in North America), law enforcement agencies, and the Anti-Defamation League. “We will continue to work closely with The Temple to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken to address this incident and to prevent further incidents,” said Neil Rabinovitz, community security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. He added that “there is no specific, credible threat” at present against the Jewish community.
During the Jan. 15 service, Rabbi Peter Berg, senior rabbi at The Temple, introduced “our preacher, my friend and teacher” and noted that Warnock recently “added just a small item” to his resume, that of United States senator. Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff were sworn in Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C., after the state the day before certified the results of the runoffs in which Warnock defeated interim Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Ossoff unseated incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue.
Addressing Warnock, Berg said that “as the first Black senator from the state of Georgia, may you go from strength to strength. … We pray for your wisdom and discernment.”
Warnock’s opponents had accused him of being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Berg praised Warnock, saying, “You have a genuine loving concern for all of God’s children. You stand up against anti-Semitism and racism. You support the state of Israel. You speak truth to power.”
Warnock began his remarks by saying “how good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity, . . . even in this virtual space,” though he lamented the absence of the traditional post-service oneg.
Acknowledging the circumstances, Warnock said, “These are tough times. These are difficult days. We’ve all suffered under this thick fog of a global pandemic that has exposed longstanding inequities, work that is yet unfinished, the building of what Dr. King and others called ‘the beloved community.’”
The theme of Warnock’s sermon was “unfinished business” and his text was rooted in the Book of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of walls that protected Jerusalem in 444 B.C.E., during the Second Temple period.
Warnock pronounced himself “inspired by Nehemiah, that bold, brilliant, and trailblazing brother who set out during difficult days to rebuild that which was broken.”
As cupbearer to the king, Nehemiah “had a good government job, but he was concerned about those who were uncomfortable, those who were unprotected,” Warnock said. “He decided to take a risk, stick his neck out do something about it. I submit that that’s what we need in our community, in our city, in our nation. We need folk who don’t mind blazing a new path in order to get a new result,” he said.
“Nehemiah decided to get something started. . . . Thank God for folk who have the nerve just to get something started,” Warnock said. “It takes passion to start, but it takes clarity of purpose to finish. It takes temerity to start, but it takes tenacity to finish. It takes a decision to start, but it takes real discipline to finish. It takes inspiration to start, but perspiration to finish.”
King was 39 years old when he was assassinated April 4, 1968, as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis, where he had gone in support of the city’s striking garbage workers. “We are so inspired by this man, who rose, a star shot across the galaxy of our minds and our lives, and settled all too soon in the distance, leaving behind him a legacy that inspires us to this moment,” Warnock said.
In his last speech, in Memphis the night before he was murdered, King said, “I may not get there with you, but we will, as a people, get to the promised land.” Referring to those words, Warnock said, “He would finish his work, his work, but the full manifestation of his mission would be left to us.”
Warnock extolled the relationship between The Temple and Ebenezer Baptist. “Thank God for Rabbi [Jacob] Rothschild, who stood by the civil rights movement in a dark and difficult period, when it was risky to do so.”
Moving on to Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, now rabbi emeritus at The Temple, and the Rev. Joseph L. Roberts, his predecessor at Ebenezer Baptist, Warnock said, “Rabbi and pastor, standing side by side, doing the work. And now Rabbi Berg and your’s truly, and all who work beside us,” on such issues as human trafficking, mass incarceration, and poverty. “Each community recognizing the challenges faced by the other.”
Warnock recalled “Dr. King standing up, not only against racism, but standing up against anti-Semitism, saying that Israel’s right to exist is incontestable, talked about it as an oasis of freedom in the midst of a desert.”
As he concluded, Warnock addressed his future and Ossoff’s: “It really isn’t a political affirmation. I am so grateful for this moment and I hope you can see it, regardless of your politics, thank God for this moment. The election is now over and standing together you have the pastor of Ebenezer Church, where Martin King stood, a kid who grew up in public housing, standing alongside a young Jewish man, the son of an immigrant, on our way to represent this state in the Senate. Regardless of your politics, will you pray for us?”