Joining Together on MLK Day of Service to Bridge Differences, Battle Homelessness and Need


Community groups throughout the Baltimore area engaged in a day of service and learning on Monday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While some used the national holiday on Jan. 16 for rest and relaxation, a significant contingent of the Jewish community, including organizations such as the Jewish Volunteer Connection and its partners, tackled projects and held events that reflected King’s teachings to help the needy, support one’s neighbor and elevate the voices of people of color.

Dr. Harriette Wimms (Photo by Jillian Diamond)

Those associated with the Jewish Volunteer Connection during its MLK Day of Service were able to participate in several different activities based on providing communal aid, such as preparing meals for the hungry and homeless; planting trees and cleaning up local parks; and creating care packages for those in need. They also held informational sessions at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, which featured other volunteering opportunities, as well as presented an address from Towson-based clinical psychologist Harriette Wimms, The Associated’s Jews of Color Engagement Fellow.

“I believe that there are many opportunities for people to come together and rise above hatred,” stated Wimms, who has a Ph.D., in her speech. “I recently learned that Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank were born the same year. … These were two individuals who had bright, shining lives that were cut short by hatred.”

“What can we do for them?” she asked rhetorically. “What you are doing today — lifting them up — makes a tremendous difference.”

Working with local organizations such as Our Daily Bread, Manna House Inc. and Pearlstone, Jewish Volunteer Connection’s programming was built to offer multiple ways to engage in service in honor of King. Volunteers could pick an opportunity that fit their interests — more artistic participants, for example, were able to complete art-based community-service projects with Art With a Heart — all while helping their immediate community.

“We’re really focused on the idea Dr. King preached, that everyone can do their part,” said Deborah Harburger of the Jewish Volunteer Connection, who served as co-chair of the MLK Day of Service event. “Everyone should do what they can, and if you can help, you can help in a big way, even if you’re still learning things.”

During the informational sessions at Beth El, adults and even children were able to put together care packages containing items many lack access to, including food, water bottles and warm socks. Younger volunteers learned more about the proper ways they can assist those in need and were encouraged to give out the packages they made to people who lives near them. One aspect of the event specifically focused on sustainability and giving out items that can be reused; another emphasized how hard it often is for people to ask for help.

Wimms said that engaging with community service is “just the beginning” of becoming more active with social-justice causes and helping people in marginalized communities.

“It’s not enough to just clean up a little and to try to make a difference only today,” she remarked. “This is just the start. We want to try and build connections — the light of humanity that King spoke of, that Heschel [Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a colleague of King’s] spoke of, that our ancestors spoke of.”

Kids help out on the MLK Day of Service on Jan. 16, 2023. (Photo by Jillian Diamond)

The ‘grand alliance’

She also mentioned the idea of the “grand alliance” between Jews and people of color, specifically African-Americans, which flourished in the 1960s during the height of the civil-rights movement. And she proposed the idea of a “petite alliance” that focuses more on community-level engagement between Blacks and Jews.

The homeless population in the Baltimore area was a large focus of Jewish Volunteer Connection’s MLK Day of Service events. According to Baltimore’s 2022 report on homelessness in the area, 1,597 people were recorded as experiencing homelessness on a single night. Of those, 73% were Black, despite Black people accounting for 62% of the city’s population. Many Baltimore neighborhoods with majority Black populations also have less access to certain municipal and other necessary resources.

“We’re hoping to really learn about the underlying needs of the homeless, and what we need to do collectively to end homelessness and to make a difference,” said Harburger, a volunteer herself, of her organization’s goals.

“We’re talking about what Dr. King taught about nagging injustices and the idea that we shouldn’t look away from them, but address them.”

‘The sameness between us all’

Wimms noted that the planners for the MLK Day of Service reached out to her when they heard about her fellowship. The organizers wanted to center racial equality as part of the discussion and sought her guidance.

In response, she suggested that they watch the film “40 Days of Teshuvah,” about the fight for racial equity in the Jewish community.

“I often think, for Jews of color, we find ourselves having to leave a part of who we are at the door,” she said in an interview. “If we are attending a Jewish event, we have to leave our ethnic and racial identities at the door or vice versa.”

When asked what she wanted volunteers to take away from participating in the day of service, she replied: “I hope that as volunteers go out and make connections [with the marginalized] — hearing the stories and experiences of people who don’t always have the necessary resources — it helps build a bigger bridge and a more nuanced way of exploring the sameness between us all, as well as the differences.”

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