Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope for the Dream

President Obama. How wonderful it feels to write those two words, savoring them as I wait for the inauguration events to be televised today.

Me, in the white jacket, meeting Rabbi Capers Funnye, Jr. Beside him is his wife, Mary.

Last night I attended a utterly transformational event at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It was a dual celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday and the inaugural of Barack Obama, featuring Michelle Obama's cousin, Chicago Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Jr., and the spiritual, soulful, and roof-splitting music of the "Prince of Kosher Gospel," Joshua Nelson, and double Grammy-winner Cissy Houston -- mother of Whitney, aunt of Dionne Warwick, and a powerhouse in her own right.

Miss Cissy Houston

Gospel, Dixieland, and Soul shook the rafters, much of it sung in Hebrew. Members of Stephen Wise and their guests, who included clergy of other faiths, African-American Jews from several local and not-so-local congregations, and people of all colors and every generation were on their feet for much of the concert, encouraged to keep the beat with their hands and feel the music. I was profoundly moved by the sight of Joshua Nelson's nonagenerian grandmother, seated in a wheelchair near the stage; while beside her, a baby girl, all pink and white, was bouncing on her mother's lap.

Rabbi Funnye with Haim Handwerker

When the musicians took a break, journalist Haim Handwerker interviewed Rabbi Funnye, whose responses to Mr. Handwerker's questions were thoughtful, moving, insightful, provocative, and humorous. Handwerker marveled that during the election, Mr. Obama had his wife's cousin as a "secret weapon" in his arsenal, and yet Rabbi Funnye was not tapped to speak to some of the American Jews who were wary about voting for him, unsure they could trust Mr. Obama to be a friend to Israel and support Jewish interests.
"Well, they know I'm here," the rabbi jested, indicating that he would always be eager to enter into a dialogue with people. "If you don't talk, you don't communicate, how can you understand what the other person is saying? I've been in the room when both sides were saying essentially the same thing, but they were saying it so loudly, they couldn't listen to each other. "

I, for one, cannot wait to visit Rabbi Funnye's shul the next time I'm in Chicago.

Joshua Nelson

In the Stephen Wise sanctuary the feelings of hope were palpable. The excitement in the room over the impending inauguration of Barack Obama, and the fact that with his historic election we have moved closer to Dr. King's dream of equality and justice for all people, moved an SRO audience to repeated bursts of applause. I can't remember the last time I've been in a room full of people -- mostly strangers to each other -- that was so full of love and hope and possibility, brought together with the universal language of music.

The evening ended with hundreds of people joining hands and singing "We Shall Overcome," although Mr. Nelson first suggested that we "update the lyric a little bit."

"We Have Overcome," Miss Houston sang, her voice warm and mellifluous. We're not there yet, the evening's headliners acknowledged; but with Mr. Obama's election as our nation's 44th president, we've taken a giant step in the right direction.