Miles College choir joins Beth-El for Civil Rights Experience Shabbat celebration


By Jasmine Moore

It was not your typical Friday night service at Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El.

There, standing tall and proud, in front of the Jewish congregation on March 15, was the acclaimed choir from HBCU Miles College filling the beautiful sanctuary with their sounds, energy and music.

Yet, in a deeper way, it was the most normal thing of all. Two communities — African-American and Jewish — worshipping together as fellow Birminghamians in a beautiful spiritual environment that bound the two communities together.

The Friday night worship service ushering in Shabbat was beautiful; to hear the music that was sung and played throughout the service was a great experience.

For someone who doesn’t know much about the Jewish faith, this was a unique learning opportunity, starting with realizing how the prayer book is “backwards” because of how Hebrew is written.

Another feature that stood out was people who have recently lost loved ones rising and reciting prayers to remember and honor them, and everyone greeting each other with “Shabbat Shalom.”

The evening also was important because it was a display of solidarity and mutual support between two communities that have been through struggles, oppression and bigotry.

One purpose of this special Sabbath was to highlight Temple Beth-El’s “Civil Rights Experience,” an initiative that educates and celebrates the role the Birmingham Jewish community played during the city’s Civil Rights era. Music and spirituality were used to bring the two communities together for the evening.

“We learned about the role of Miles College in the Civil Rights Movement when we researched sit-ins in the 1960s as part of this project, and the role of Miles College students in those demonstrations. Along with the historic connection, this seemed like a great chance to build a new relationship,” said Temple Beth-El’s Margaret Norman.

Perhaps the most powerful moments of the evening occurred during a workshop prior to the start of the service. This setting gave choir members the chance to introduce themselves.

Those from the Jewish community who attended the workshop heard about the choir’s achievements and its upcoming performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

The workshop also created a setting for members of the Jewish community to join the choir for some singing.

What the two communities sang together was a musical rendition of Psalm 145, with words and music by Miles College Choir Director Valerie R. Harris, who led the singing and fused the voices of the two communities into a one powerful voice. Her energy, passion and love for music and people filled the room.

Together they became wrapped in a single voice: “Great is the Lord, Great is the Lord, Holy, righteous, mighty, awesome… Great is the Lord, Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised.”

“In a world where so many are divided, I thought it was important to come together and show unity even though our beliefs are different,” said Harris.

Jaeden Henderson, a Miles College junior and choir member, said he felt very good performing at Temple Beth-El. “It was different only because their beliefs are slightly different than what I’m accustomed to, but overall, a great experience!”

Added Henderson, “I believe it was important for the choir to perform at this event to promote diversity.  Diversity is important in anything that we do and to be able to expose people to our beliefs, our gifts and talents was a blessing in itself.”

Jasmine Moore is a junior at HBCU Miles College. She is interning jointly with Southern Jewish Life and The Birmingham Times through a partnership with Miles. She is focusing on stories of interest to both the Black and Jewish communities.