At the corner of Church and Lispenard is La Colombe, one of my favorite coffee shops in New York City and a particularly favored place for my “outside the office” JCP meetings because of its historic importance for our city and country. That address, as a sign outside indicates, was the home of David Ruggles, a noted Abolitionist leader and publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper, Mirror of Liberty. It was to Ruggles’ home that the great writer and orator Frederick Douglass first escaped before moving on to Rochester, from where he lived and wrote for the majority of his life. Ruggles harbored hundreds of escaped slaves and shepherded them to freedom, a feat that Douglass often compared to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
A few blocks away, at the corner of West Broadway and White Street is a familiar site to many downtown residents, the J Crew Men’s Store, branded as the “Liquor Store,” a once well-soaked dive in the neighborhood. But for the first part of the 19th century it was the home of Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American to graduate from Princeton, the pastor the First Colored Presbyterian Church and a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. One of the only extant addresses that Wright gave was upon the occasion of dedicating a free Black church in Schenectady in 1837. To fight for freedom was a privilege bestowed upon humans by God, he said. Teaching lessons to our young ones was something which “the Lord hath helped. He hath done great things whereof we are glad.”
I was thinking about this idea, that down here in Lower Manhattan, two hundred years ago, African Americans who had escaped the scourge of slavery expressed their gratitude for freedom in the language of the Bible, in relationship to the Divine, and with joy in the privilege and opportunity to pass those lessons on to the next generation.
This is a very Jewish idea of course. In declaring God’s oneness in Deuteronomy and in our prayerbook, we say after reciting the Shma that take upon ourselves the obligation of “teaching these words to our children.” The light of truth has been received; but it only continues to burn when we take responsibility ourselves for maintaining or even stoking the flames of freedom and justice and peace.
In this week’s Torah portion, Be’ha’alotecha, God commands Moses and Aaron in the ritual of lighting the menorah in the Tabernacle with a very specific verbal injunction. “When thou lightest the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the candlestick.” If you think about it, most of us light candles for Shabbat, holidays, or birthday parties from the top, not the front. Why this specific command, the Sages asked.
The Talmud teaches two very evocative lessons. In one reading, command to light the lamps in front of the candlestick creates a dynamic tension, on one plane, between the light’s original source and the one who approaches that source to keep the flame alive. Think of it as a meeting on a liminal plane between the human and the DIvine.
In another reading, the Sages say that Israel asked God, “Master of the Universe, You command us to light before you but are You not the Light of the World?” To which God replied, “I don’t require your own light but that you may perpetuate the light which I conferred on you as an example to the nations of the world.”
This is, perhaps, what Theodore Sedgwick Wright was getting at on the corner of White and West Broadway when he was thinking about the inherent joy of serving others, of sharing wisdom, of doing good and teaching the next generation to do the same.
One of the ways I love to engage communities in learning is to go out, hit the streets, and uncover the many layers of the past, a past with more than enough fuel to inspire us in the present and on into the future. Whether here in New York, on journeys South, or to visit small surviving Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, we are so greatly enriched by this kind of singularly powerful learning construct.
Here at JCP in Lower Manhattan we are blessed with so many gifts and so much talent for which we are surely grateful. And when we strive together as a community to learn and to teach and to do, we are the keepers of the flame of hope for a better world.
Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.