Less Talk, More Action
A New Agenda for Black Jewish Relations
Let me begin with a confession: I am very optimistic about the future of black-Jewish
Relations in this country and in this city. Maybe this is the naive optimism
of a newcomer to the world of professional Jewish Communal Service. But I think
that the roots lie deeper than personal experience and outlook. I sense a fundamental
change in recent discussions of black-Jewish relations. From The New
York Times and The Nation to Emerge and The Jewish Advocate, I see a new openness,
intensity, freshness, and depth -- a new seriousness -- in these discussions.
Still more importantly, I hear a powerful, constructive message emerging from
them. My own organization -- the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)--has
been articulating this message for the past year and I would like to share it
with you tonight, in the hope of creating some allies in my optimism.
The message is simple: We need less talk and more practical engagement on projects
of common concern. It is time to get past the two-minute soundbites about the
evils of racism and anti-Semitism, the repeated rehearsals of our common histories
of diaspora, and the endless analyses of our "recent troubles." What
has been missing since the "glory days" of the civil rights movement
is a shared partnership for social change. We need to get it started again.
It may be true that while the black community sought out its own power and identity,
we were asked to take a walk. The fact is that we did take a hike and now we
need to find our way back.
Joining forces on common ground will require a clear understanding of what unites
us and an honest appraisal of our differences. That appraisal must begin from
some basic facts: that we live in two different worlds, that we have two different
sets of needs, and, at the most elemental level, that survival itself now has
very different meanings for blacks and Jews. To develop a practical partnership,
we need to pay attention to these different meanings, which were powerfully
stated by Letty Cottin Pogrebin in an article in The Nation (23 May 1991) on
"Blacks and Jews: Different Kinds of Survival":
For blacks, survival means actual physical endurance, staying alive in the face
of violent crime, drugs, hunger, homelessness, and infant mortality rates that
are more than triple those of whites; it means surviving as a viable community
when 30% of the adults and 75% of the children live in poverty, when 44% of
black 17 year olds are functionally illiterate and black unemployment is twice
that of the white race. For Jews, survival means keeping a minority culture
and religion alive against all odds, guarding against anti-Semitism and the
slippery slope that could lead from hate speech to the gas chambers, and helping
to guarantee the security of Israel. In other words, blacks worry about their
actual conditions and fear for the present; Jews worry about their history and
fear for the future. Black survival is threatened by poverty; Jewish survival
is threatened by affluence, assimilation and moral corruption.
Starting from these differences, how can we proceed to build understanding,
bridges, mutual support -- to move beyond suspicion, conversation, and exhortation
to a genuine coalition of blacks and Jews?
I am happy to say that in Boston we have already started to reframe the terms
of discussion and collaboration, as is evidenced by my speaking here tonight
with my friend and colleague Eugene Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community
in Dorchester. Gene and I have had the good fortune to be part of a Strategy
Development group comprised of 40 community leaders representing the racial
and ethnic diversity of Boston. Under the aegis of the Boston Foundation, and
with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, we have been engaged in a series
of discussions on a theme of common concern across all our communities: How
can we eliminate persistent poverty from our city? Working together, we have
agreed on a set of principles which represent a new way of thinking about eradicating
urban poverty and building community. The "new thinking" begins by
emphasizing the assets of people living in Boston's diverse neighborhoods, not
their deficits. It is inclusive, empowering, preventive, family-centered, and
-- what is most important -- respectful of the strengths and capacities of all
racial and ethnic groups and all people. The idea is to move from a crisis-oriented,
service delivery approach to chronic poverty toward a community-building model
that promises over time to reduce and eradicate the persistent poverty that
lies at the root of so many of our common problems. It is a strategy that is
very familiar to the Jewish community: for years, this has been the approach
in our own community
to helping other Jews find routes out of poverty.
New leaders are emerging who are ready to articulate and to act on this message
of unity in diversity. Here in Boston people like Gene Rivers and Ray Hammond
and others are coming forward to advance a constructive vision of new possibilities.
Women like Joan Wallace-Benjamin, President of the Urban League, and Dianne
Wilkerson, newly elected State Senator from Roxbury, are leading the community
out of a period of despair into a period of hope. These are all people who are
willing to take their message to anyone who will listen.
When rabbis in our community were concerned about the role they could play in
the aftermath of last June's Los Angeles riots and the stabbing at Morningstar
Baptist Church, Gene offered to work with me to bring together a group of interested
black and Jewish clergy. What began as a one-time meeting has continued as an
ongoing brainstorming session to develop ways
to expand the number of joint synagogue/church efforts. And after the LA riots,
it was Joan Wallace-Benjamin and Dianne Wilkerson who led the black community
in a community-wide organizing effort, and crafted the "Ten Demandments"
which have emerged as a blueprint for action on issues of concern for improving
the lives of people in Boston. In December, Joan explained the blueprint at
a JCRC Urban Concerns Seminar, co-sponsored with the Young Leadership Division
of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. It recommends changes in policies and
programs to help create jobs, improve public education, and increase access
to affordable health care. But what is really distinctive is that it starts
with a "Declaration of War on Apathy and Irresponsibility":
[A]s leaders our job is to carry out the collective will of this community with
you not for you. We must commit to each other to hold each other accountable.
. . . Responsibility to and for each other is absolutely critical. Therefore,
we demand of ourselves that our churches open their doors to all our youth,
all of our community residents, and all people in need. We take responsibility
as individuals and a community for:
* Reinstating and enforcing a community norm that says that the sale and use
of drugs is wrong, illegal, destructive, and will not be tolerated.
* Committing more energy to preventing adolescent pregnancy and parenthood than
accommodating it after it happens.
* Holding ourselves and our neighbors accountable when we know criminal activity
is going on.
* Keeping our streets, yards, places of business clean even in the face of faulty
and uneven city services.
* Educating our children in the home and promoting the concept of the extended
family of friends and relatives that is a traditional part of our culture.
* Bearing the legal, financial and moral obligation for fathering children.
* Respecting the difference in background, class, appearance, political affiliation
and place of residence, among ourselves. There is strength and power in the
diversity within our own community.
This is the First Demandment. Like the principles we have established through
the Strategy Development Group, it recognizes that lasting change must begin
with the people who will benefit most from the change, but it must not end there.
In contrast with the message of the past, this new message starts by accepting
responsibility but then also asks for partners in charting a course that will
lead to economic self-sufficiency and a better quality of life.
The idea is to move...toward a community-building model that promises over
time to reduce and eradicate the persistent poverty that lies at the root of
so many of our common problems.
The community-building efforts that Reverend Rivers has undertaken exemplify
this new approach: Azusa works at the grass-roots level in Dorchester, but recognizes
the strength that comes from building coalitions to advance those efforts. And
we are about to take it one step further -- if we are successful in securing
funding from the Small Business Administration for a joint project between the
Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) and the Ad Hoc Coalition of Black Churches which
Gene has been instrumental in organizing. This project will take the expertise
which JVS has developed in training and providing loans to newly arrived refugees
from the former Soviet Union for microenterprise initiatives and extend that
success to working with single heads of households in some of Boston's poorest
neighborhoods. This is just one of the many opportunities which exist for genuine
cooperation between our two communities: Common projects based on mutual respect
and guided by a shared vision of what can be.
From Gene Rivers locally to Jesse Jackson nationally, there is a new message
that we all need to hear. In his speech of reconciliation with the Jewish community
which he delivered to the World Jewish Congress last summer, Jesse Jackson put
the message this way:
Let us take this opportunity to advance the cause of healing, building social
justice, racial justice, gender equality, a healthy environment, and world peace.
Let us reason together and agree to disagree or to disagree as equals without
being disagreeable. Let us organize a mechanism, a safety net for resolving
disputes and minimizing public confrontation. Let us, in the name of democracy,
be tough enough to be adversaries in debate without being perceived as enemies.
Let us discern between different methods while supporting a common mission.
. . . We must coalesce as a central force for world economic growth and peace
to save the world in order to save ourselves.
My message tonight is that our mission is clear. We need to stop inspecting
our separate traditions and start improving our common lives. As Jews, we can
contribute to that improvement by sharing what we have learned over the past
century as New Americans. Much has been said about the "Death of the American
Jewish Community" in Dorchester and Mattapan, to use Hillel Levine and
Larry Harmon's words. It is true that we no longer live in the city in any significant
numbers and as a result are no longer confronted every day with the challenges
of city life. But geographic separation is no excuse for indifference. For our
religion teaches a responsibility to tikkun olam, to make the world a
better place for all. And our history teaches us that our fate and security
as a people -- our survival -- is inextricably linked to the fate and security
of all people.
I will close with the words of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union
of American Hebrew Congregations from an article written by him which was adapted
from his introduction of Jesse Jackson at the World Jewish Congress, entitled
"The Common Dream of Blacks and Jews":
Let us remember that our commonalities exceed our differences by far.
For you see, the fear of common enemies does not mark the boundary of our necessary
alliance. In addition to our common nightmares, blacks and Jews dream common
dreams. We share a vision of a just and open and generous society. We agree
that it is the foremost task of government to protect the weak and the stranger,
to achieve social and economic and political justice. We are both committed
to the need for change, in our country, in our world. We see our common dream
not in the valley of the status quo, but on Martin Luther King's mountain top.
Originally published in the June-August 1993
issue of Boston Review