Rabbi Heschel Worked Closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) led a group of bipartisan senators in urging President Obama to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his influential role as a public intellectual. A refugee from Hitler’s Europe, Rabbi Heschel saw a need for a call for social action and justice in the United States. This inspired Heschel to march alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, galvanizing millions of Americans to the civil rights cause.
Despite the differences in their background, Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King were brought together by their mutual concern, speaking fervently against racism. Heschel joined Dr. King on his third march on Selma, an iconic moment in history. On several occasions President Obama has quoted Rabbi Heschel’s words upon his return from Selma: “I felt my legs were praying.” Heschel was a visionary leader who “believed that racism is the greatest threat to humanity. He, literally, walked the walk in affirming the dignity of all people,” said Dr. Georgette Bennett, founder of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and widow of Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who collaborated closely with Rabbi Heschel in his career as an activist. Thus, awarding Rabbi Heschel the Presidential Medal of Freedom celebrates Heschel’s indispensable legacy, reminding the new generation Americans of Rabbi Heschel’s historic and indispensable role in the Civil Rights Movement.
 “After fleeing persecution, Rabbi Heschel took it upon himself to courageously speak out for social justice, civil rights, and tolerance for people of all races and religions,” Senator Brown explained. “His uncompromising social activism continues to serve as a model for us today, and awarding Rabbi Heschel the Presidential Medal of Freedom is a fitting honor for his important legacy.”
“Thank you to Senator Sherrod Brown and his colleagues for leading the effort to honor my father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,” said Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel and Eli Black, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. “My father would have been deeply moved to be honored by the country that saved his life. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an extraordinary honor to him and also a great tribute to the vitality of Jewish life in our country.”
Mark Meyer Appel, Founder of The Bridge Multicultural and Advocacy Project, noted the importance of Rabbi Heschel’s influence: “Rabbi Heschel is the model of activism for civil rights to this day, as Americans across all races and religions continue the fight for justice, tolerance, and equality.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the NY Board of Rabbis, shared the sentiment, stating that “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was an exemplary rabbi who was committed not only to the Jewish people but a leader for all people.”
“Rabbi Heschel is one of those great people to have lived and made his mark on this world. He led by example when marching with Dr. King Jr., showing race, ethnicity, and stereotypes should never be a factor for division, instead illustrating that peace between humanity is what should drive us. I thank Senator Brown for leading the effort to recognize Rabbi Heschel’s imprint on American history,” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO of The Friedlander Group, elucidating the significance of Heschel’s legacy. This endeavor is being coordinated by The Friedlander Group and spearheaded by Project Legacy, which recognizes individuals whose leadership has resulted in the advancement of peace, human rights, democracy and freedom.
The letter was also signed by U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Al Franken (D-MN), CoryBooker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Gary Peters (D-MI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), BobCasey (D-PA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D), Brian Schatz (D-HI), RichardBlumenthal (D-CT), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Full text of the letter is below.


President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
We write urging you to award the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rabbi Heschel’s contributions to the African American Civil Rights Movement, his leadership on interfaith dialogue, his theological scholarship, and his role as a public intellectual make him a fitting recipient of this award.
Rabbi Heschel came to the United States in March 1940, as a refugee from Hitler’s Europe. He was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907, to a family of distinguished Hasidic rabbis. He studied and taught in Germany from 1927 until his deportation in 1938, and he earned his PhD at the University of Berlin. His dissertation focused on the religious experience of the biblical prophets. With a knowledge of Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French, and Arabic, he worked both as a scholar and as a teacher. He was also a source of religious inspiration to German Jews during the first six years of the Nazi Reich. In 1937, he moved to Frankfurt, where he replaced Martin Buber, who moved to Palestine, as director of an adult Jewish education center.
In October 1938, Rabbi Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo and deported from Germany. The intervention of his family secured his release to Warsaw, where his mother and two of his sisters were living. He managed to escape Poland at the last moment – “as a brand plucked from the fire” – just a few weeks before the Nazi invasion. After a few months in London, he arrived in the United States in March 1940 with a visa secured for him by Julian Morgenstern, president of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Heschel stayed in Cincinnati until the war ended, teaching, learning English, and writing. Most of all, he struggled valiantly but in vain to rescue his mother and three of his sisters who were trapped in Europe, as well as other family members and friends. He joined the famous March of the Rabbis in Washington, DC, in 1943, calling on the United States government to rescue Jews from Europe. Yet his family and friends in Europe were murdered, and the world that had nurtured him was destroyed.
After the war, Rabbi Heschel accepted a professorship at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he remained on the faculty until his death in 1972. In 1946, he married pianist Sylvia Straus, and began an intensive period of intellectual creativity. Within eight years, he published The Earth is the Lord’s, The Sabbath, Man is Not Alone, Man’s Quest for God, and God in Search of Man, as well as numerous articles.
In 1963, Rabbi Heschel met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the two forged a deep friendship sharing theological and political ideas-Dr. King even came to refer to Rabbi Heschel as “my rabbi.” Before an interfaith gathering on “Religion and Race,” Rabbi Heschel declared that “racism is Satanism, unmitigated evil.” Later that year, he sent a telegram to President Kennedy, asking him to declare a state of “moral emergency” of racial inequality in the United States.
Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel worked closely together, lecturing and marching for freedom. After the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama, Rabbi Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to the FBI headquarters in New York City to protest its failure to protect the marchers. Later that month Rabbi Heschel joined Dr. King in the third march in Selma, and said he “felt [his] legs were praying.” In 1968, Dr. and Mrs. King and their children were hoping to join Rabbi Heschel and his family at their home for Passover Seder; however, instead of coming together in faith and fellowship, Rabbi Heschel read a psalm at Dr. King’s funeral following his tragic assassination.
In addition to being a voice for justice and equality, Rabbi Heschel was a strong advocate for interfaith dialogue. His work has been translated for people of all faiths, and is read across the world. As the most prominent rabbi in the Civil Rights movement, he reminded us that it is the duty of all faiths and people to speak out against injustice-with prophetic passion, as he did. In his role as a Jewish theologian, Rabbi Heschel was invited to serve as consultant to the Second Vatican Council as part of the Church’s effort to repair the relationships between Jews and Catholics. His many works, including his landmark God in Search of Man, inspired Americans of all faiths. Indeed, as Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr notes, “[Rabbi Heschel] is an authoritative voice not only in the Jewish community but in the religious life of America.”
In considering his significant contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, his work to advocate for racial equality and justice across all faiths, and his work to encourage interfaith dialogue, we believe Rabbi Heschel exemplifies the best of American values. We urge you to consider honoring his life by awarding Rabbi Heschel with the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Thank you for consideration of our request.


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