Jan. 18, 2008 -- Rabbi Arthur F. Starr began the annual Martin Luther King Day service at the Jewish Synagogue Friday night by calling on everyone to join in singing "Kumbaya" -- a song that popular culture relegates to the likes of a summer-camp bonfire.
But amid the soft lights of the synagogue, with its shutters open, the breeze gently circulating above the padding of the sand floor, the singing resonated sincerity and grace. And so began a ceremony featuring a Sabbath service, a Muslim keynote speaker and tributes to six local students -- three from Christian schools -- honored for their intelligence and their commitment to community, during a tribute to the slain civil rights leader's legacy.
After delivering the Sabbath service, Starr began the tribute to the students by asking all teachers, counselors and school administrators to stand for recognition.
"We thank you for what you do, day after day, week after week, with little pay," the rabbi told them. "You have the most precious things in your possession -- six, seven hours a day ... and you make them into wonderful productive citizens.
"The highest honor that Judaism pays anyone is to be able to call someone 'my teacher.' So we honor you."
And then it was time to honor the students themselves: Sabina Constantin of All Saints School, Ella Elizee of Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Megan McGrath of Antilles School, Mohammad H. Mustafa of Sts. Peter and Paul School, Aclesia Scotland of Seventh-day Adventist School and Odari Thomas of Charlotte Amalie High School.
Each student received a $500 U.S. Savings Bond, as well as a copy of the book Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community by Rabbi Marc Schneier.
Before a resume was read listing each student's accomplishments -- academic, athletic and community service -- the rabbi summed up how outstanding a group of seniors these were by issuing an apology.
"I do apologize -- I received the resumes that guidance counselors and teachers sent to me on these students, and I challenge any one of you to take what any one of these students has done and put it on a single page!" he said.
Again and again, the words "high honor roll" were repeated, as were lists of community-service activities, special interests and exceptional talents.
"Get engaged and participate in public life as our students have done," said the keynote speaker after the students were introduced. "They are doing what needs to be done to create a future full of peace for all of us. We need to invest in them."
Imam Yahya Hendi, who serves as the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, delivered the keynote, not only as a special guest of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, but also as a special friend of Rabbi Starr. The two met four years ago during a seminar that drew leaders from different faiths together for days of sharing food, prayer and traditions.
"I've know him for four years, but we've been brothers for over 4,000 years," Starr told the audience as he welcomed Hendi to the podium.
Hendi has written numerous publications and is a sought-after speaker on issues of interfaith relations, and no place exemplified interfaith quite as dramatically as did the Synagogue Friday night. One student in particular, Mohammad Mustafa, stood out. As a student of Sts. Peter and Paul, he has studied Catholicism since seventh grade, yet remained steadfast in his Muslim faith.
"I think this is wonderful," Starr told the audience, with levity in his voice. "At a Catholic school, a Muslim receives an award from a synagogue."
Hendi echoed Dr. King, proclaiming, "I believe, the dream of Martin Luther King lives on ... because we have a synagogue like this, and because we have schools likes these and because we have young women and men who are these.
"My brothers and sisters," Hendi continued, "the dream lives on. There are people out there who say we cannot make it happen .... We are tonight telling them that they are wrong. We are making history. This is history."
The evening closed with audience members joining hands and singing the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."
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