Jewish Teen Speaks at MLK Memorial Service

Jewish Teen Speaks at MLK Memorial Service

Miriam Raggs is believed to be the first Jew of color to participate in the annual service at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Miriam Raggs, center, flanked by Bernice King, left, and Susannah Heschel, right. (Photo by Victoria Raggs)
Miriam Raggs, center, flanked by Bernice King, left, and Susannah Heschel, right. (Photo by Victoria Raggs)

The photograph brought together what Miriam Raggs calls her “intersecting identities,” as an African American and Jewish woman.

On the left of the photograph is Bernice King, who was 5 years old when her father, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. On the right is Susannah Heschel, daughter of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and spoke at his funeral three years later.

Standing between the two women, wearing her kippah and tallis, is Raggs, a 16-year-old 11th grade student at The Weber School.

The women posed in front of the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta, following their participation in the Martin Luther King Jr. Beloved Community Commemorative Service on Jan. 17.
Raggs — believed to be the first Jew of color to participate in the annual service — was one of six high school students who delivered sections of King’s speeches, in a dedication to his vision of a “world house.”

Seated on the pulpit behind her was Bernice King. In the front row was Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist and a U.S. senator from Georgia. Whatever nerves she felt, Raggs spoke confidently.

“It was so cool and such an amazing opportunity,” Raggs said, finding it “so surreal” to be inside the sanctuary at Ebenezer Baptist rather than watching the event on television. “It was amazing, getting to be in the same room with so many important people who are fighting for change.”

Bernice King’s speech was “so powerful, more powerful in person than what I see on TV,” she said.

Raggs also received an unexpected invitation from Heschel. “I was so honored that she asked me to visit Dartmouth [College],” where Heschel is the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies.

Raggs’s participation stemmed from a call made by the MLK program’s organizers to The Weber School, seeking a student who would be interested in participating in the event.

“After she was picked, they called me to make sure she was Jewish,” said Victoria Raggs, who assured them that, yes, her daughter is Jewish. Derric and Victoria Raggs and their four children have been members of Congregation B’nai Torah for 15 years.

The issue of Jews of color “is awkward in the dominant Jewish community and African Americans are not exposed to the fact that Jews are diverse as well. It does show that we need to educate other communities,” said Raggs, who is the co-founder and executive director at Atlanta Jews of Color Council, Inc.

For her part, Miriam Raggs said, “I don’t really see it as two separate identities. I’m one person with intersecting identities. … Jews are multicultural. It’s a false notion that here in America Jews are from Eastern Europe.”

She has learned to take in stride when people ask if she is really Jewish. “My family has raised me to be equally proud of all my backgrounds,” Raggs said.

Victoria Raggs said there is a need to educate other communities about the diversity of Jews in America.

The passage that Raggs memorized was drawn from King’s famous “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence” speech, delivered April 4, 1967 (one year to the day before he was assassinated), at the Riverside Church in New York City. Its theme also appeared in King’s last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?,” published in June 1967.

Raggs recited the following: “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the justice and fairness of many of our past and present policies. We are called upon to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that is only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women are not beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It understands an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to look on the glaring contrast between poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation it will look at the thousands of working people displaced from their jobs, with reduced incomes, the result of automation while the profits of their employers remain intact and say, this is not just. The western arrogance, a feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them, is not just. A nation that spends more money year after year on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Though it had been a long service (more than three and a half hours), Bernice King and Susannah Heschel happily accepted Raggs’s request to be photographed together, said her mother, who took the photo.

Miriam, who has a 4.0 grade point average and is in the National Honor Society, said she has thought about studying the sciences, perhaps focusing on chemistry in college.

“It was a pivotal moment in a young girl’s life,” Victoria Raggs said of Miriam’s participation in the service and Heschel’s encouragement that she consider Dartmouth in her college plans. “There are special moments that can change the trajectory of your perspective of the rest of your life.”

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