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Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in 1907 in Warsaw, Poland to a devout Jewish family and was the namesake and descendent of two preeminent rabbis in Eastern Europe. He received his PhD in 1933 from the University of Berlin and a liberal rabbinic ordination from the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1934.

In 1938, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported back to Poland where he taught at the University of Warsaw. With the help of a friend, he obtained a visa to go to London, narrowly missing the German invasion of Poland by six months. His family was not so lucky. Heschel’s sister Esther was killed in a German bombing. His mother was murdered by the Nazis, and two other sisters, Gittel and Devorah, died in Nazi concentration camps. Heschel would never again return to Poland or Germany. His experience during the Holocaust would be a major influence on his life’s work.

He had seen first-hand what racism and apathy could do, and how violence towards human beings often began with the abuse of language. Hitler, he would later say, did not come to power with tanks and machine guns, but with words.

Despite the tragedies he had witnessed Heschel would never blame God. According to Father Daniel Berrigan, who knew Heschel well: “I was seeing someone who was totally immersed in his own religious tradition and was at the same time charmingly ecumenical…and open to others…The two went together…if you were a person of deep faith you were open to others and you didn’t draw lines or boundaries or say we’re inside the circle and others are out.”

It was upon moving to New York City in the mid-1940s that Dr. Herschel would become a prominent social activist. He campaigned for the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union, and at the Vatican Council II, as representative of American Jews, Heschel persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned the Jews, or referred to an expected conversion to Christianity. He published theological works in the 1950s that argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse, not just a Jewish one. He believed that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth.

In his opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago on 14 January 1963, at which Martin Luther King Jr. was also a featured speaker, Heschel maintained that Americans had the chance to find redemption through their efforts to combat racism: “Seen in the light of our religious tradition, the Negro problem is God’s gift to America, the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity.” Heschel also viewed ecumenism as the necessary means to attack this social ill.

A social consciousness infused with an ecumenical approach brought Heschel and King together again on 19 November 1963, when both men addressed the United Synagogue of America’s Golden Jubilee Convention in New York. King expressed his deep accord with Heschel’s cause—which was to stand against the Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jewish population—by restating his own view that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King stated that he could not neglect the plight of his “brothers and sisters who happen to be Jews in Soviet Russia.” In March 1965, Heschel responded to King’s call for religious leaders to join the Alabama voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. The march was spiritually fulfilling for Heschel, and he recalled feeling like his “legs were praying” as he walked next to King. Dr. Heschel would remain devout to his religion until his death in 1972. “My being Jewish,” he once said, “is so sacred to me that I am ready to die for it.” His notable activism in the fight for civil rights went hand-in-hand with his religion. As he once said, “God is either the father of all men or of no man, and the idea of judging a person in terms of black or brown or white is an eye disease.”

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