The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the secular articulation of the deepest truths of all spiritual traditions. It is the best, deepest and highest ideals of all traditions,” says Rabbi Brian Walt, a founder and former director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Three years ago, that organization began to produce prayers, sermons and teaching materials linking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to core Jewish values for use by Jewish congregations to celebrate International Human Rights Day. Today, Dec. 10, is the 62nd anniversary of the signing of the declaration, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center is celebrating human rights Shabbat in its honor. Rabbi Caryn Broitman, Rev. Cathlin Baker and Rev. Robert Hensley will speak at the Hebrew Center’s Friday night services at 5:30 p.m. about human rights as celebrated in their faith traditions.

The Jewish, Episcopalian and Congregational faiths transform the world with their projects in international, national and local arenas, and their Island representatives — we and our neighbors — do work supporting these religious organizations. The Island’s synagogue and churches all participate in Islandwide projects, from collecting for the food pantry, volunteering with hospice and at Windemere, and hosting soup suppers, to supporting those in the community who have done hurricane relief work in Haiti and New Orleans, immigrant rights work along our border with Mexico, and racial equality work here and throughout the world.

Paraphrasing Isaiah, Rabbi Broitman says, “Judaism teaches that political oppression and injustice, as well as economic deprivation in the form of hunger and homelessness, are unacceptable.” The declaration’s focus on both political and economic rights fully reflects core concerns of the Jewish tradition. Indeed, there are myriad Jewish organizations, including Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, whose missions are to do social justice work to further the rights of the oppressed.

Rev. Cathlin Baker, minister of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, worked for the rights of the poor in New York city, whom, she said, were “blamed and stigmatized.” Echoing Rabbi Walt, Reverend Baker says, “The UDHR provides a language around which the secular and religious can unify.” She paraphrased another prophet, Micah, whose words inspire the United Church of Christ, the Congregational Church, in its human rights work. “Everyone will live in peace underneath his vine and fig tree and no one will be afraid.”

Rabbi Broitman identified two other fundamental teachings of Judaism in connection to human rights: the concepts of human beings as “created in God’s image” from Genesis and kavod habriot, human dignity. “The idea that all human beings reflect the image of God is both radical and all-encompassing. If we mistreat our fellow human beings, we mistreat the very image of the divine, and even the divine itself,” she says.

Respect for human dignity resonates in the Epicopalian Church, as well. Rev. Robert Hensley, minister of Grace Episcopal Church, says that the wording of the Episcopalian Baptismal Promise includes “striving for justice and peace among all people and respect for the human dignity of every human being.” For the Episcopalian Church, Reverend Hensley explains, human rights action work achieved a new height during the voter registration rights campaign in the 1960s, when the church sponsored northern members to do work in southern communities.

So happy Human Rights Day! We celebrate today the very best to which humanity aspires and the real achievements of people connected to all faith traditions, as well as those outside of them, who strive to attain its goals. The public is welcome to join the Hebrew Center community tonight at 5:30 p.m. for the clergy panel discussion.


A member of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, Lori Shaller is a rabbinical school student. She lives in Oak Bluffs.