Independence and Hope: From Dr. King’s Montgomery church to the Israeli Embassy

Wanda Howard Battle of Montgomery recorded the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah” on the bimah at Temple Beth Or. She was accompanied by violinist Clare Weil, a Temple Beth Or member who serves as president of the Montgomery County Board of Education and was in the Montgomery Symphony for 27 years.

by Richard Friedman 

A Montgomery powerhouse will take center stage April 14 when the Israeli embassy in Washington hosts a virtual celebration for Israel’s 73rd Independence Day.

Wanda Howard Battle, well-known African-American Christian vocalist and church tour leader, was invited to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, after meeting Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, during his recent trip to Montgomery. She also will sing America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I was blessed to guide Ambassador Erdan and his delegation of about 12 people a few weeks ago at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church,” explained Battle, who is famous for her spiritually and musically invigorating tours of the historic church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

“We had an amazing time with the ambassador reciting an excerpt from Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘Oh Freedom’.”

The singer-tour leader’s warmth, charisma and talent made an impression on the ambassador because about a week later she was invited to sing at the Embassy’s celebration.

“I told the event coordinator that the invitation to sing ‘Hatikvah’ was like asking a White person to sing the Black national anthem. She replied, ’Ms. Wanda, in us considering the work that you do and your message for people around the world to embrace one another’s diversity, we thought it was very appropriate to ask you!’”

Battle, in a recent Zoom chat, noted with emotion that “Hatikvah,“ which is Hebrew, means “The Hope.” She leaped at the opportunity.

“My heart knew it was appropriate and the right time. I said ‘Yes, I am honored’.” The songs were pre-recorded at Montgomery’s Temple Beth Or on the bimah in front of the ark engraved with Hebrew letters, an experience Battle found powerful. It was important to her to be in a Jewish setting when she made the recording.

Tzlil McDonald, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama, calls Battle “a gem of Montgomery.” Animated by her magnetic personality and sustained by an endless fountain of love, Battle devotes her life to connecting with people of all faiths and backgrounds, believing that we all are beautiful threads in the tapestry of humanity.

McDonald feels that because of Montgomery’s rich Civil Rights history and landmarks, that strong ties between the Black and Jewish communities and an understanding of their respective struggles is important for both groups. She introduced Battle to Temple Beth Or’s Rabbi Scott Looper.

Being Israeli, McDonald also helped Battle with her Hebrew. “The first time she sang I was very impressed. It was very powerful to hear her sing ‘Hatikvah.’ She studied the words so she could feel the music. It was very important to her to send the message of hope, especially after meeting the ambassador.”

The Right Place 

Recording the Israeli national anthem in a synagogue was emotional for this Montgomery dynamo. Though she had been to the synagogue, she had never sung there. “It was very special. When asked where I would want to videotape this presentation, I knew the synagogue was the right place.”

Her connection to the ambassador and invitation to sing as part of the Embassy’s celebration have heighted her appreciation for the similarities between the struggles that Jews and African-Americans have endured. “We share a story of oppression and suppression. We each have struggled for acceptance and being appreciated for who we are.”

For this Montgomery vocalist, Israel’s national anthem also communicates a universal message: “For 73 years, Israel has been recognized as an independent nation. The message is that there always is hope.”

The words to Hatikvah were written in 1886 by poet Naphtali Herz Imber — 62 years before Israel’s rebirth as a modern Jewish state. Wrote Imber, “Our hope is not yet lost, It is two thousand years old, To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Battle was a young girl during the Civil Rights era. Her parents were involved in the Movement, serving as role models for her. As she came of age, her odyssey took her elsewhere. She eventually returned to Montgomery, where she made her mark.

In a 2019 profile on her journey, singing and church tours, Montgomery Advertiser reporter Safiya Charles captured Battle’s uniqueness: “Battle stands as tall as a giant before the visitors seated in the sanctuary of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Battle has just explained that the ceiling above the pulpit where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached fiery sermons that would ignite Montgomery’s black gentry and fuel the Civil Rights Movement is made of tin embossed tiles. The detail seems slight, until Battle bursts into operatic song, her voice doing somersaults through the aisles.”

As Israel’s Independence Day approaches, Battle said she never could have imagined being asked to sing as part of the celebration.

“There are many vocalists more accomplished and better-known than me,” she said as tears of joy began flowing from her eyes. “That I have been asked leads me to believe that God has called me for this moment. I intend to use it to honor Israel and the Jewish people and spread the message of love for all humanity — and especially the message of hope!”

(The virtual Israel Independence Day event will stream on the Israeli Embassy’s Facebook Page, Twitter and YouTube, April 14 at 7 p.m. Central, 8 p.m. Eastern. For more information, click here.