Jan. 13, 2005 The lights of the Crystal Gade Synagogue danced up and down St. Thomas' backstreets on Friday evening, while its walls reverberated with a beautiful melody a blend of the laughter, prayer, and song of more than 200 residents.
Indeed, the Sabbath service was what Rabbi Arthur F. Starr called "very special," since it brought together members of the community from all races, religions, and genders to honor the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the legacy he's left behind for citizens all over the world.
Starr said the annual service is a "highlight" for the Hebrew congregation because it also celebrates the accomplishments of seven of the island's brightest and most dedicated students students who Starr said embody King's willingness to build a society filled with love, hope, and freedom.
"We have to make Dr. King's dream live on in our hearts and in our communities," he said.
The audience did just that, joining Starr as he built upon the warm atmosphere already flowing through the synagogue by inviting congregation members and guests to join him in prayer. From time to time, Starr even hit upon a tambourine, spurring residents to clap and sing or hold hands and hug each other.
"We are all friends and family here tonight," Katina E. Coulianos, the congregation's president said.
Coulianos said the congregation has sent a letter to local high school principals every year for the past ten years asking for the name of one student who embodies King's ideals.
"And every year, as members of the congregation sit down and read the letters that have been sent about these students, we are always so amazed at the things these young people accomplish," she said.
This year's honorees were no exception, Coulianos noted. She and other presenters said that each student found the time to excel academically and serve the community on various projects and events. All students were also part of faith-based organizations, which was, according to Coulianos, a major inspiration to King during his lifetime.
Honorees included Jermaine Baptiste from Charlotte Amalie High School; Ruth Elmes from Sts. Peter and Paul School; Claudia Greaux from Wesleyan Academy; Alani Gregory for All Saints Cathedral School; Edward Polanco for Ivanna Eudora Kean High School; Millener Rogers from Seventh-Day Adventist School; and Nathan Rosenberg from Antilles School.
Presenters spoke about each student as they came up to receive their awards, and revealed that all honorees were preparing to graduate and head off to college majoring in everything from computer engineering to religious studies.
Both Rogers and Polanco also received a round of applause when Coulianos said they were thinking about furthering their endeavors with the church. Rogers, for example, is preparing to give his first sermon, while Polanco plans to become a minister.
Coulianos said each student received a $500 savings bond, along with a copy of a book entitled Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community. She encouraged students to read the book, since it described the bond between Hebrews and the Civil Rights movement, particularly the relationship between the Jewish community and King.
"Most people have no idea how fitting it is for a Jewish congregation to present awards like this every year," she said.
Coulianos' statements set the mood for the rest of the evening, as guest musicians Kim and Reggie Harris, accompanied by Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, took the stage. The trio sang songs about the struggles experienced by both Africans and Hebrews.
"Both groups have a long struggle, a long history, dealing with slavery, oppression and the struggle for freedom," Kim Harris said.
The trio closed the Sabbath service with a rendition of We Shall Overcome, in which audience members held hands and sang in both Hebrew and English.
"During the Civil Rights movement, there were many people who were afraid to put themselves on the line for what they believed in," Reggie Harris said after the song. "The numbers were often small, and often times it was only the young people who had enough courage and faith to get out there and fight for what was right.
"So, tonight we celebrate the accomplishments of young people, especially these young people, who are really working to make a positive change in the world."
The Hebrew congregation's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day continues throughout the weekend and ends Monday with public observances in Emancipation Garden at 10 a.m.
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