Two faiths unite to plant trees for MLK Day of Service

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On Sunday, January 17, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, volunteers from Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a synagogue in Encino, and the New Philadelphia AME Church in Rancho Dominguez, planted trees and distributed bare root fruit trees donated by the TreePeople.

Adults and teenagers rose early and descended on Fernangeles Elementary and Sun Valley High School, both in Sun Valley’s predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, with shovels, trowels and bags of potting soil in hand. With a forecast of rain and plenty of it, the goal was to give something back to another Los Angeles community by beautifying the schools before the deluge came.

Girls from

Girls from Valley Beth Shalom and New Philadelphia AME Church worked together to plant trees. Photos: Bobbi Rubenstein

First observed in 1986, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated on the third Monday of January each year, marking the birth date of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and honoring his legacy as an activist and prominent leader during the civil rights movement. This year’s observance fell on January 18th. The national Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service was initiated by Congress in 1994 as a way to transform Dr. King’s life and teachings into a day where all Americans could engage in meaningful service that strengthens communities and build bridges.

“After President Barak Obama’s call to service, the congregation was inspired to organize a weekend around Dr. King’s birthday with another faith-based organization,” said Randi Simenhoff, chair of the synagogue’s Chesed Connection/Social Justice Committee and event organizer. “In 2006 and 2007 we went to the Gulf Coast to clean up the ravages of Hurricane Katrina with the New Philadelphia AME Church, so this third project together was a natural.”

Reverend Mike and Rabbi Noah

(L-R) Reverend Mike Andrews of New Philadelphia AME Church and Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom.

The inspiration for this current civic partnership was the joint Jewish/African American actions during the civil rights struggles of the 60s. In 1965 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century and an activist for equality, marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. Deep friends, Rev. King gave the keynote speech at Rabbi Heschel’s 60th birthday party and Rabbi Heschel gave a eulogy at King’s funeral.

Teenagers from both congregations said they got up early on Sunday because they wanted to give back to the community. Tremaine Wilson 13, from New Philly, said it’s important to contribute. For Idan Dolgin, 14, from VBS, it was about wanting students to come to school on Tuesday and see a new playground.

Trees were donated by TreePeople.

Trees were donated by TreePeople.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas said, “Building community comes from our Jewish tradition. It manifests what God expects from us in the world – partnership.” Rev. Mike Andrews echoed those sentiments. “The man we are honoring today wanted us to not just stand together but to stay together.”

As good-byes were said and promises offered to bring everyone together again, the threatened rain began to fall, watering not just a few plants, but the seeds of an ongoing relationship based on common goals.

Bobbi Rubinstein is a member of Valley Beth Shalom and the chair of their Green Team.

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.