What I Learned at the Ulmer Institute Inaugural
I have known Rev. Ken Ulmer for some time, and I am not the only Orthodox Jew to have had the privilege. Bishop Ulmer, as he is known, heads up a huge black megachurch in Inglewood. Three services on Sunday, with thousands in attendance. A list celebrities sitting with homeless people. He is enormously supportive of Israel, not only in principle, but in deed. In every time of crisis, he has been there in public, standing with Israel in times of need.
He claims that two trips changed his life. The first was to South Africa, just after the release of Nelson Mandela. There, he connected with his ethnicity in a more meaningful way. The second was in Israel, twenty years ago, where he connected with his spirituality like never before.
On one of many trips since, he was introduced to a program dealing with PTSD. He heard horrible stories about soldiers watching those around them cut down by bullets; of people pinned down for lengths of time by sustained gunfire and explosions around them; of listening to the screams of the wounded.
He said to himself, “Hey, I have congregants who experience much the same in Inglewood, walking from their homes to my church.” He decided to devote the next years of his ministry importing Israeli know-how to the urban ghetto. Last night, at a dinner (glatt on request) at the Monage in Beverly Hills and cosponsored by the Israeli Consulate, he inaugurated the Ulmer Institute.
I learned two things.
I learned that time-travel is possible. Decades ago, too long ago for most of us to remember, Jews and African-Americans enjoyed a close strategic alliance. The marriage broke up horribly. Blacks felt that they had been dealt with paternalistically, and also resented a relationship that was one-sided. The Jews were doing the giving; they could not reciprocate. (The mussar seforim speak about how people, when they cannot discharge an obligation, will come to deny that obligation rather than deal with the crushing weight of the debt.) Jews, watching this, felt that they had been kicked in the rear by ingrates. The relationship ended, at least on anything close to its previous scale.
Watching the return of open racism during this presidential campaign (with blacks, Latinos and Jews all targeted), some people scratched their heads. Shouldn’t the old alliance be resurrected?
Last night I learned that it could be. A room full of a mix of blacks and Jews enjoyed each other’s company, besides honoring a project that brought them together. Perhaps the African-Americans sensed the new reality. This time around, an embattled Israel and her supporters needed them more than they needed the Jews. Perhaps that is the new equalizer.
Whatever the case, the easy, comfortable conversation was a throwback to a much earlier time. That conversation was laden with expectation that, at least in Los Angeles, some new bridge-building had moved from the drawing board to the construction stage.
The other thing I learned is that we inadequately train our rabbis in public speaking. If they want to do it well, they need to listen to black preachers.
Dr. Ulmer has been to my home. We found him to be mild-mannered and understated. I wasn’t prepared for what I heard when he stood at the lectern. Forceful, engaging, powerful. He held the audience in his hands and rolled it around like putty. (Without raising his voice, which seems to be a frequently used, even if entirely ineffective, speaking tool in our community.) I’m ready to sign up for his Practical Rabbinics 01 class.
I will share one of his stories that he actually did not tell last night. It was ably conveyed by Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who is a great orator in his own right. He had heard the story years before from Dr. Ulmer.
A great chess-master was taken on a tour of an art gallery. There he stopped before a depiction, as it turned out, of a chess board. “This is all wrong,” he shrieked.
He was beside himself. They asked him what was wrong.
“You know that I am the single greatest chess champion in the world!”
Yes, we know. But what is the problem? Why are you distraught?
“I am the single greatest chess champion in the world! You realize that?”
Of course. But why are you so disturbed.
“I am the greatest chess master! I have no peer. Is that understood?”
We get that. But tell us what calamity you see in this painting.
“The title. It is ‘Checkmate.’ But the king has one more move.”
“People have asked me in very difficult times how I could possibly hope to succeed with a project that seemed undoable. I tell them, ‘The King always has one more move.’”