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Less Talk, More Action

A New Agenda for Black Jewish Relations

Nancy Kaufman

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

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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