Martin Luther King Day is no ordinary federal holiday. It is one of only two that is designated as a national day of service (the other being September 11 National Day of Service and Remembrance). In fact the formal name of the holiday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and it is through service and learning that we honor Dr. King’s legacy.
In Pirkei Avot (1:2), Shimon HaTzadik is quoted as saying “the world stands upon three things: the Torah, religious worship, and acts of kindness.” Why specifically acts of kindness? What about tzedakah, charity? Certainly charity is essential. It provides resources to enable programs to exist and funding for those in need. However, Shimon HaTzadik uses “acts of kindness,” a border definition to include service where we give of our time, our skill, and our talent to assist others. For Shimon HaTzadik, it’s not solely tzedaka, charity, which is a fundamental foundation maintaining our world, it is acts of kindness which provide means and also demonstrates our care and love for those who can benefit from assistance.
Service of the type Shimon HaTzadik speaks of and which we are called on to perform on MLK Day is a crucial element which allows our world to exist and function. Not just because of its effect on those in need, but because of its effect on the participant as well. Acts of kindness requires us to shift from the focus of much of our thoughts and concerns, namely ourselves, to thinking about others and their needs.
Shimon HaTzadik’s priorities of service and care, and the theme of MLK Day, are reflected In FJA’s mission too. We aim to inspire students to think compassionately, to dedicate themselves to (Jewish) peoplehood, and to become lifelong leaders. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. employed all of these elements, compassion, dedication to peoplehood, and leadership. Dr. King led a movement which invoked compassion and expressed the primacy of all humans as one people. These qualities, which brought positive change to our society and country, are the same qualities we seek to engender in our students.
Yesterday, as a school community, we participated in several local service projects. We had a fantastic student turnout and I was able to join our seniors at Yad Ezra. I watched with pride as our students learned about the incredible services Yad Ezra provides our community and then threw themselves into the volunteer work. Students also volunteered at Friendship Circle of Michigan, The J’s Sarah & Irving Pitt Child Development Center, Almost Home Animal Rescue, and Jewish Senior Life of Metropolitan Detroit.
In 1957, before an audience in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King posited that "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" Some two thousand years earlier, Shimon HaTzadik had expressed the same emphatic idea. Martin Luther King Day is a vital opportunity to honor Dr. King’s legacy and continue his efforts to improve the world around us. It is a day when we can perform acts of kindness and model for our students that the health and vitality of the world they will inherit is truly in their hands.