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Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Herschel Story

Premieres Monday, May 17 at 11 p.m.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the most remarkable and inspiring American figures of the 20th Century. He was a mentor to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, an early and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and a pioneer in the critical work of interfaith dialogue.

Famed American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called his friend Rabbi Heschel “an authoritative voice not only in the Jewish community but in the religious life of America.”  Heschel major writings including The Prophets, The Sabbath, and God in Search of Man, are considered religious classics and remain widely studied. 

Born in Warsaw, Poland, Heschel was descended from a long line of celebrated rabbinical scholars dating back centuries. He left Poland to study philosophy in Berlin as Adolf Hitler was beginning his rise to power. He fled Germany for the United States in 1940, barely escaping the Holocaust. Before the end of World War II, he would lose his mother and three sisters to the Nazi horrors.

Heschel spent most of his academic life at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, rising to become one of the nation’s most celebrated Jewish figures. His book on the Hebrew prophets (The Prophets) captured the imagination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who invited Heschel to take on a role in the civil rights movement. For King, Heschel embodied the connection between the movement and the plight of the Jews in Egypt. Many of the iconic images of the Selma March feature King and Heschel standing arm-in-arm in the front row.

It was that friendship and mutual respect that enabled Heschel to persuade Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak out publicly against the war in Vietnam. Both would be widely criticized for what seemed to many an anti-American stand. 

The film combines archival photographs and rarely seen archival footage, as well as a collection of outstanding interviewees including: Civil Rights leaders Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Young, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Taylor Branch, public theologian Cornel West, Jewish Theological Chancellor Arnold Eisen, daughter Susannah Heschel and others. Also featured is the artwork of Marc Chagall and his depiction of the Hebrew prophets.

The Abraham Hescheldocumentary is the last installment in a series of films on significant religious figures of the last century including earlier films which profiled Reinhold Niebuhr, African American theologian Howard Thurman and Catholic social activist Dorothy Day.

SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: The Abraham Heschel Story is produced and directed by Martin Doblmeier and Journey Films. Since 1985, they have released through Public Television more than two dozen acclaimed films on religion, faith and spirituality including: The Power of Forgiveness, CHAPLAINS, The ADVENTISTS, BONHOEFFER, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, and others.