Mount Airy rabbi and prolific author arrested 26 times

by Len Lear
Posted 10/23/20

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 87, a long-time Mt. Airy resident resembles what one might imagine is an Old Testament prophet. With his long white beard, cherubic smile and omnipresent, colorful headgear, …

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Mount Airy rabbi and prolific author arrested 26 times

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 87, a long-time Mt. Airy resident resembles what one might imagine is an Old Testament prophet. With his long white beard, cherubic smile and omnipresent, colorful headgear, Rabbi Waskow's every word, much of it about multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious harmony and understanding, bespeaks hard-fought wisdom and a love of kindness, empathy and, perhaps most of all, justice.

And Rabbi Waskow does not just talk about these virtues. He was first arrested in 1963 during a walk-in to end racial segregation by a Baltimore amusement park, and he was arrested at the U.S. Capitol in 2016 in a protest calling for more democratic election processes in the U.S., getting what he called "hyper-wealth" out of election campaigns and ending voter suppression aimed at disfranchising especially racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, the young and the old.

Including his most recent arrests in Philadelphia at the ICE offices in protest of U.S. governmental hostility to refugees and immigrants, he has been arrested 26 times, each time for a protest against racism, militarism, polluting the earth or interference with democratic processes. He insists that each arrest was a public honor and a religious act in the spirit of the remark by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel after the Selma March for voting rights: "I felt as if my legs were praying."

And now Waskow has written his 25th book, “Dancing in God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion,” which has just been published by Orbis Books, the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, which publishes religious books, usually about Christianity and liberation theology. According to the publisher, this book “promotes a progressive spirit of renewal that connects Jews, Christians and people of other faiths. We all experience earthquakes in our lives — social, personal, religious. From those earthquakes, renewal and new life can come forth if we learn to dance in the midst of the earthquake.”

“I see the book as a harvest,” Waskow told us last week, “of my whole life experience in religious commitment, spiritual delight and social transformation. Many people look on a harvest as a product of past sowing and growing, but I see this book as what a harvest is really supposed to be – food for the future. This one is my favorite of all my books.”

Reviews of the book have been positively luminous. For example, feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote, “A wonderful book! Before the hierarchies and divisions of religions, there was the all-inclusive circle of spirituality. In 'Dancing in God’s Earthquake,' Rabbi Arthur Waskow helps us trace our path back to our spiritual home.”

According to Rabbi Arthur Green, Rector of Rabbinical School at Hebrew College and author of “Judaism for the World," “The Jewish people's most revolutionary theologian is at it again, trying to waken us out of our moral slumber before it is too late. The ancient prophet said: ‘A lion roars? Who will not fear?’ Rabbi Waskow is our roaring lion.”

Waskow grew up in Baltimore and earned a bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in U.S. History (1963) from the University of Wisconsin (Madison). From 1959 to 1961, he worked on disarmament and civil rights issues as a legislative assistant for a U. S. Congressman. From 1961 to 1963, he was a Senior Fellow of the Peace Research Institute, working on issues of world disarmament and critically analyzing official approaches to nuclear deterrence and civil defense. In 1963 Waskow joined in founding the Institute for Policy Studies and was a Fellow there until 1977.

During the years from  1959 to 1970, Waskow wrote “The Limits of Defense” with Marcus Raskin (Doubleday, l962), hundreds of articles and five other books on nuclear strategy, deterrence, disarmament, conflict resolution and violence and non-violence in American social change, including “From Race Riot to Sit-in” (Doubleday, l965).  

Waskow is also the founder and director of The Shalom Center in Mt. Airy, whose purpose is to “draw on Jewish values as it seeks peace, justice, compassion and healing of the earth.”

How has the pandemic affected Waskow's life? “It has kept me at home, tied to a computer. It has made me much more aware of my age and mortality.”

What is the best advice he ever received? “It is from Rabbi Heschel (1907 to 1972): He was commenting on an occasion when I had used dramatic but imprecise language. He said, 'We do not have money to bring about change, nor guns. We have only words, and we must use them with as much precision as some people use guns.'”

What individuals have had the greatest impact on Waskow's life? “My  younger brother, Howard, who died nine years ago, and my wife, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, who both taught me how to love late in my life.” 

For more information, visit theshalomcenter.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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