Jan. 15, 2005 At sundown Friday members of the St. Thomas Hebrew Congregation gathered as usual at the Crystal Gade synagogue that has served the community as a place of worship since 1796. The cheerful words of the ancient Sabbath greeting, Shabbat Shalom Sabbath Peace rang through the evening air as always, but there were many new faces in the crowd that passed into the temple.
As the service began Rabbi Arthur F. Starr explained that the Jewish Sabbath, the hours between Friday and Saturday's sunsets, is a time "to stop and let the world go by for a little while," a time to leave behind the worries and stresses of the day.
But this particular Sabbath carried a little more meaning than usual as the Hebrew Congregation took the opportunity, with the approach of Monday's national celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, to recognize the accomplishments of a few special students.
Katina Coulianos, the congregation's president, explained that every fall since the mid-nineties a letter has gone out to principals at each of the island's seven high schools asking for the name of one student who embodies the ideals of Dr. King. "We look for students who are truly involved in the life of the community," she said.
This year's honorees were an impressive group of the island's best and brightest young men and women, all of whom managed to earn solid grades while participating in a list of extra-curricular, church and community activities long enough to make the award presenters breathless trying to read them all. And, as King would no doubt have wished, they represented the whole community, crossing all boundaries of religion, race and gender.
Honorees included: Clytie Brown, of Charlotte Amalie High School; Derecia Wilson, of Ivanna Eudora Kean High School; Chantel Z. Greene, of Weslyan Academy; Arturo R. Watlington III, of Sts. Peter and Paul School; Cassadie Peterson, of Antilles School; Monica S. Scott, of All Saints Cathedral School, and Alejandro Quetel, of the Seventh-Day Adventist School.
The two hundred-plus souls crowded into the synagogue, many of whom were there for the first time as family and friends of the honorees, were treated to the impassioned words of invited guest speaker, Rabbi David Saperstein.
As director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and as a board member of numerous national organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and People for the American Way, Saperstein's name is synonymous with the struggle for social justice and religious equality.
Saperstein's ambitious speech covered ground from global environmental policy and the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, to women's rights and the dangers of a staunchly conservative U.S. Supreme Court. But despite the breadth of his appeal, he returned many times to the evening's honorees, thanking them for the light they bring to the community, and imploring them to keep pushing forward.
"We are all proud of you and the hope you give to us," he said, adding, "If Dr. King were sitting here tonight to listen to what you are doing, he too would be proud."
Those who were honored seemed humbled by the experience. Watlington, a 17-year-old senior who plans to study business marketing in college, gave much of the credit to his family, for "teaching me that I can do more than on thing at a time," and to his school, "for teaching me discipline."
Scott, also 17 and a senior, said she was glad for the opportunity to participate in a Jewish service, something she's never done before. She was also excited to win the meaningful award, she said, and to have her name and accomplishments associated with those of Dr. King. "I've never been honored outside of my own school before."
Greene, who said she has dreamed of being a family-law attorney ever since a fifth-grade assignment got her thinking about her career, said the whole night was a "great privilege."
In addition to receiving a commemorative certificate, each of the awardees was given a $500 U.S. saving's bond and a copy of the book "Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community," by Rabbi Marc Schneier.
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