By Bridgette M. Redman

Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, is a time for restoration and reflection. It is also a time for justice, which is why the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center has reached out to Urban Voices and asked them to sing during its Shabbat on the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

The temple’s Social Justice Committee hosts the MLK Shabbat and developed a program that challenges its members to take active roles in promoting justice in their communities. This year, the Urban Voices choir will sing during their services and talk to them about issues related to the unhoused population.

Urban Voices Project is a street choir for Skid Row residents. Many of its members have experienced homelessness or poverty, and their mission involves helping people shift their perceptions of homelessness.

The event is 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14, virtually through YouTube and Facebook.

Social Justice Committee member Janice Markham is friends with Leeav Sofer, the artistic director of the Urban Voices Project. Sofer is also the bandleader for Mostly Kosher, of which Markham is a part.

When the committee was deciding what to do this year, Markham brought up an Urban Voices performance. The idea got a thumbs up.

“It was just a matter of reaching out to Leeav, as they’re usually quite busy at this time of year,” Markham said. “We were very fortunate to ask them early enough to get them on board.”

She said it is important to the committee and the temple that their Shabbats speak to all members of the community — not just Jews. While Sofer is Jewish, he, too, is committed to accessibility and has incorporated that concern into the planning of the event.

“We’ll engage with the synagogue community or any faith-based community,” Sofer said. “Most of the time our energies are intertwined into the service. We want to maintain some landmark moment of the service. Sometimes we will have guests perform with us at the end and, in this case, we’ll have pieces sprinkled through the evening.”

Program’s voices raise up justice

The program is filled with songs that speak to justice and choir’s mission. One of the pieces is an original arrangement of “We Shall Overcome,” which was written by their late accompanist Lawrence Jones.

“He passed away unexpectedly in January 2021,” Sofer said. “He was battling cancer. He had gone through homelessness, and he was a veteran. He found our choir, and we were able to hire him on staff as our accompanist. He was involved in launching satellite companies and was a legitimate gospel pianist. He inspired this arrangement, and after his passing, we completed it and made a music video with it.”

The music video was made just as vaccines were approved. The video turned into a vaccine advocacy project. Because they could not sing together at that time, they did the song in American Sign Language. They will put their voices together for the song at the temple.

“We’re excited to premiere it at this venue and in this community,” Sofer said.

Other songs on the set list include “Walk with Me” by Maggie Wheeler and “I Am an Endangered Species” by Diane Reeves. The first, Sofer said, is a call to action that advances the choir’s message surrounding advocacy and personalizing and humanizing the homelessness experience.  The second is a powerful feminist song.

With the third piece, “Rise Again,” the choir will invite the audience to sing along.

“So much of our advocacy work when we perform is truly to try to humanize and personalize the narrative of people who have lived experience with homelessness but, more than that, to eliminate the ‘us and them,’” Sofer said.

“We want to leave the concert feeling we are in this together, shoulder to shoulder, which is why we ask the audience to sing with us. We invite them to fight the fight with us.”

Throughout the event, they will share testimonies and personal experiences.

Committee issues call to action

Markham said the committee aims to present things to temple members that are actionable and challenges them to pursue social justice in concrete ways.

“One thing we try to stay consistent about — and this Shabbat will be no exception — is to have elements of our event where people will walk out and feel motivated to do something,” Markham said.

“As a Jew, as an activist, as an artist, this is very important to me. I know I can speak for my whole committee that we really hope the message Leeav has been speaking about and the whole Urban Voices project will motivate people to volunteer or pass along the message or donate.”

They have focused on bridging the gap between communities in Pasadena. The group’s late chair, Rabbi Marvin Gross, worked tirelessly on homelessness issues. Gross was the former CEO of Union Station in Pasadena and coordinated homeless services in the greater San Gabriel Valley.

“He would be pleased to see we are front and center on the issue,” Markham said. “It was his mantra to always have people leave wanting to do something. That is the goal that we have with this evening, and I hope people will be encouraged to be there for the uplifting music and story.”

Event links social and racial justice

Both group leaders, Markham and Sofer, said there are many commonalities between the organizations that makes sense for them to come together near Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Sofer said that many argue that homelessness is a new form of racism. Statistically in Los Angeles, 37.8% of the unhoused population were African American in 2020, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), while only making up 9% of the general population. An additional 32.5% are Hispanic/Latino, and only 24.9% are white.

A 2019 LAHSA report discovered that racism, discrimination and unconscious bias has contributed to homelessness in the city. During its research, it found cases of systemic bias in policies affecting housing, employment, criminal justice and child welfare that were a part of homelessness’ underlying causes.

Sofer said there has long been a connection between the Jewish and civil rights movements. Both advocate for those who have been marginalized. Jewish leaders such as Rabbis Joshua Heschel and Uri Miller were part of the coalition of civil rights leaders who marched on Selma and Washington and sought to raise up oppressed individuals and communities.

“We have a diversity of races in our choir,” Sofer said. “But even those not of a minority call out the race issues and name it. So here on MLK weekend, it’s an opportunity to activate that connection that has been prevalent in our country and really fight for the marginalized and use that voice we’ve always had. We are bringing those voices together, and for those that aren’t a part of either diaspora, they can come and witness it themselves and feel activated and uplifted.

Contemplation and community

Markham said the Shabbat service is also a welcoming service and a call to rest.

“So many of us during this time are trying to keep our lives going and work as hard as we possibly can,” Markham said. “Even dealing with the challenge of a global pandemic and the past couple years related to it, I look forward to Shabbat because it demands we take a step away from our stresses and from work. We can use the universality of what is so needed at this time to connect with our social justice Shabbat, to come out of ourselves and be inclusive of not only what we are going through but what other people are going through.”

Shabbat is from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Markham describes it as a time that they not only engage in contemplation and rest, but they welcome music and togetherness with their community members, rabbi and cantor. 

During the past few years, they have been together via Zoom and social media. They were still able to engage with each other and with their traditions.

Urban Voices Project has advocated for vaccinations on Skid Row, so all choir members are vaccinated. Sofer said it is important to share that message. The choir typically has about 25 members. Right now, it performs with 12 to 16 singers.

“We are excited to be performing together again,” Sofer said.


Urban Voices at MLK Shabbat”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14

WHERE: Virtual through Facebook and YouTube

COST: Free

INFO: sjcpjtc@gmail.com or urbanvoicesproject.org