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Sharing the vision
by Andrea Barrist Stern
January 14, 2010 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The African American and Jewish communities have long been natural allies. Some of the most prominent names in the Civil Rights struggle were those of Jews, and two of the three Civil Rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were Jewish. So it seems fitting that these two communities are coming together this year to organize a concert on Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 18, in memory of the slain Civil Rights leader.

The event, at 3 p.m. at the Pointe of Praise Family Life Center at 243 Hurley Avenue in Kingston, will feature folk legend Pete Seeger, folksingers Kim and Reggie Harris, Bill and Livia Vanaver and the Caravan Kids, rabbi Jonathan Kligler of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and cantor Robert Cohen of Temple Emanuel in Kingston. Also on the bill are the Ulster County Community Outreach Choir, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation Youth Choir and the New Progressive Baptist Church A Cappella Choir. The suggested minimum donation for tickets is $10.

Proceeds from the concert, whose theme is "Journey to Freedom," will go to benefit the Save Them Now Community Re-Entry Program that helps men recently released from prison and drug treatment make smooth transitions back into society. Often these men are black, but that is not always the case.

Cantor Robert Cohen knows firsthand what it is like for a newly released parolee. A former regular of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, Cohen, 70, was in charge of bringing folksingers to Mississippi during Freedom Summer. A member of the New World Singers, the first group to record "Blowin' in the Wind," Cohen went on to become a music teacher in the years following. He was convicted of Medicare fraud in 1991 in connection with a psychiatrist for whom he worked, and found himself in the Greene County Correctional Facility serving a sentence of four to 12 years.

The prison chaplain happened to be rabbi Jonathan Eichhorn of Kingston's Temple Emanuel, who befriended Cohen and eventually sponsored him, finding him a job as the synagogue's organist when Cohen became eligible for early release in 1994. When Eichhorn retired ten years ago, Cohen went on to become the synagogue's cantor. Today, he serves on the board of directors of Save Them Now, which was founded by the reverend Modele Clarke, pastor of the New Progressive Baptist Church in Kingston's Rondout section.

"Joining Save Them Now seemed like a very natural thing to do," said Cohen, who is recovering from an operation on his hand but is hoping to perform at the Martin Luther King Day concert. Cohen also replaced Eichhorn as chairman of the Ulster County Religious Council, a 35-year-old organization that reaches out to the clergy of all faiths, seeking to bring them together for interfaith initiatives. At the concert, Cohen plans to sing "Turn Around," a song he wrote in prison about turning one's life around.

In New York State, prisoners are generally released from state correctional facilities with little more than $40 or $50 in the pockets and deposited at a bus or train station to fend for themselves. "No matter how strong they are before their release, it is a very frightening time for them," said Clarke. "They are expected to become productive members of society, but there is a high rate of recidivism because these men are so ill-equipped to deal with society."

Created three years ago as an outreach of the New Progressive Baptist Church to meet this need, the organization is now a not-for-profit that has become independent of the Church. According to Clarke, it has served approximately 300 men, who have been able to stay out of prison and are now "functioning members of the community." Said Clarke, "They are blending in so well that it is a source of pride to us and evidence of the success of these kinds of programs."

The minister pointed out that such programs are also highly effective, even when only the monetary savings are considered. It now costs the state about $45,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in a state prison, he noted. And that's assuming that the individual is healthy and that there are no additional health costs, he emphasized.

As far as the concert goes, it seems like an event that was just waiting to happen. Clarke and Kligler had been looking for a way to collaborate. Kligler and the Harrises have performed together at venues internationally for more than five years, and recorded a CD together called Let My People Go: A Jewish and African American Celebration of Freedom. Last spring, several members of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation approached Kligler about undertaking more social action work in the community. Kligler suggested that they approach the African American community. With the Harrises available on Martin Luther King Day, and the efforts of an army of volunteers from both communities, the details fell into place.

Seeger responded enthusiastically as soon as he was asked. In addition to other associations among the performers, Cohen and Seeger also have a longtime connection: Cohen personally chauffeured Seeger around Mississippi during Freedom Summer. "Everyone we called got excited about it," said Kligler, noting that the concert was intentionally scheduled for 3 p.m. so that children could attend on a day that is a holiday for most people.

At press time, tickets were still available from the New Progressive Baptist Church (Rita Worthington, rmwpdw@aol.com); the Ulster County Religious Council (Bob Cohen, rcohen4@hvc.rr.com); and Pointe of Praise Family Life Center, (845) 339-4615. All of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation's tickets have been sold. Tickets will also be sold at the door if seats are still available.

Tax-deductible donations to Save Them Now can be mailed to the organization at PO Box 3624, Kingston, NY 12402.

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