Vergie McCall brought us together to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King

by | Feb 8, 2024 | Jewish Tidewater, Other News

On Martin Luther King Day, Vergie McCall was in her element, not just singing a spiritual to residents of Maimonides Health Center (formerly Beth Sholom Village), where she is a longtime volunteer, but leading a program with three “other” Jews.

Yes, the 76-year-old African American was joined in the social hall by yours truly (a former synagogue president), Ron Koas, the rabbi at Congregation Beth El, and Elihu Flax, once the cantor at Temple Israel and later religious director at Beth Sholom. McCall asked us to speak about Dr. King, his history, and relationships with Jewish leaders during his too short life (1929-1968). Why? Because we are her Jewish mishpacha. “I converted in 2011,” says McCall, “nine years after I placed my aunt at Beth Sholom and began helping with daily religious services, starting with Christian ones, and then studying with Rabbi Archie Ruberg and others about Judaism.” She was bat mitzvahed in 2012.

“I really fell in love with the Jewish faith because of the connections with Christianity like baptism whose roots were from the mikveh (ritual bath),” McCall says, who grew up in Berkley, once one of Norfolk’s most Jewish neighborhoods. “I also spent a lot of time as a child in a very Jewish community in Philadelphia, and it had such an impact on me that my friends used to say, ‘Vergie, you ARE Jewish’.” The closest elementary school to her in Norfolk was Gatewood, but she (who would later graduate from Booker T. Washington High School) could not go there. “It was the white school, so we had to walk about three miles to Lincoln Elementary.”

McCall speaks openly about all she and her family endured. “I heard lots of stories about how my grandparents worked so hard picking cotton and tying up tobacco leaves.” And she recalls how some of her Berkley neighbors moved to white Norview in Norfolk, only to have their houses bombed or crosses burned on their lawns. At the same time, she remembers Jewish retailers like Crockin Levy as the only ones that would give blacks credit. Her sister, Mary, married a Jewish school teacher named Becker. “When Mary died last October, so many Jewish people made donations in her honor to synagogues and their sisterhoods. It was wonderful.”

Married and later divorced in 1983, McCall has two grown sons living out of the area (Richmond, Va. and Harrisburg, Pa.). She worked in radiology in Philly and as a trainer at CBN in Virginia Beach.

“We have come a long way but still have a long way to go,” she told the MLK Day audience, that included, ironically, Betty Harris, the first black teacher at Gatewood. Another African American resident, Navy vet Duane Williams, recalled bigotry against his parents who had emigrated to Norfolk from Trinidad and Tobago. “We had trouble finding a place to live here because of our color.” At the King Commemoration, Williams read aloud a poem by Langston Hughes called I Too, about being dismissed “from the table,” an indignity that the author said must end.

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

See full work at

For Vergie McCall, religion has truly defined her life. She learned to sing at Mt. Zion AME Church on Filbert Street in Norfolk and was ordained as a minister there in 1996, later conducting Christian weddings, at times inserting rituals from Jewish ones. That interfaith experience was on full display as we celebrated Dr. King, who would certainly have been proud of how she brought us together this day. “My journey has been so exciting,” she says. It’s such a joy for me to be along for the ride.”

Rabbi Ron Koas, Cantor Elihu Flax, and Vergie McCall.