The image of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is still invoked to tell the story of the long relationship between the Jewish and African American community.
But despite some similarities between the two minority groups and a history of collaboration during the Civil Rights era, this alliance has devolved into alienation over time. At least since the 1990s, relatively little critical dialogue between the two groups has occurred, says Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, rabbi emeritus at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on Mercer Island.
We have to “make the relationship healthy by talking honestly about the things that have created tension,” Rosenbaum says.
A new program in Greater Seattle is working to patch up this relationship locally through a shared source: the Bible.
From late 2018 to early 2019, local black and Jewish clergy met for six three-hour sessions as part of the “Creating Beloved Community” project at Herzl-Ner Tamid. Using Jewish scripture and selected texts by Dr. King, the group reflected on notions of belonging and othering. How can one maintain a distinct identity while creating connections with the people around them?
In June 2018, Rosenbaum and Dr. Mark Jones, a community activist and entrepreneur who works with local communities to create economic development around social cohesion, drafted a program proposal to create a platform for communal dialogue and Biblical text study between blacks and Jews. Jones and Rosenbaum met several years ago at Herzl-Ner Tamid when they co-facilitated a talk on civil discourse around immigration.
Although black churches share many of the same religious tenets as the Jewish community, interfaith and intercultural connections remain sparse, says Reverend Garry Tyson, pastor at Goodwill Missionary.One of the advantages of using Biblical text, Rosenbaum claims, is that as a shared text, it creates a safe space for both Christians and Jews to express themselves.
This estrangement, according to Tyson, is potentially damaging. “We suffer from the lack of knowledge, and what we don’t know will hurt us,” he says.
In late 2019, Tyson was leading a group study on the book of Nehemiah — about the governor of Judah appointed to build a wall around Jerusalem and regenerate community — connecting him to his efforts to combat gentrification, when he felt called by God to have a rabbi lead a discussion. Having heard from Jones about his developing interfaith initiative, Tyson recruited Rosenbaum to help lead two sessions.
“It was transformational,” says Tyson about having an alternative reading of a familiar text. Carrying on the momentum of the group’s success, Rosenbaum and Tyson established a cohort of eight reverends and eight rabbis in what was to become “Find the Sister and Brother in the Other.”
That program continues to run at Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church in the Central District. The clergy get together to analyze passages from Genesis. This year, similar projects have been set up for congregants and clergy.
Jones points out that it is possible to use shared histories as a point of connection without equating two different contexts: Black struggle and Jewish struggle are not one and the same, but they certainly have similarities. “The multigenerational trauma is within us, not between us,” says Jones.
Rosenbaum seconds the importance of shared trauma but cautions against the two communities engaging in a “victim Olympics.” Black slavery and Jewish suffering operate on different timelines and should be understood as unique struggles.
For the program to succeed, difficult topics must be tackled — like Zionism, white privilege, and trauma — with a sense of dignity. At a recent meeting, Rosenbaum engaged with an anti-Zionist congregant. Jones facilitated in the structure of a formal debate, and while Rosenbaum and the congregant did not necessarily come away agreeing, each saw the other’s point of view.
Politics can be polarizing, and though we may be fearful of not having the right skills to navigate hard conversations, says Jones, it is important to make ourselves vulnerable and to be together.
Rosenbaum and Tyson both express hope for the program’s expansion beyond Seattle. Potential partners in Atlanta and Chicago are emerging, and clergy in New York have expressed interest in developing interfaith text study programs similar to those being developed locally.
According to FBI data, hate crimes are on the rise in the United States, and black-Jewish relations may be improved by thinking about them as a theological necessity. “What would God want as the behavioral objective for community?” Jones asks.
Tyson is confident trust, prayer, and effective communication will help restore a bruised relationship. “It’s time for us to come together and realize that we are more alike than we are different. I believe that we’re better together, and I believe that’s what God wants.”