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Jewish Journal

Jews, Blacks Affirm Shared Priorities

by Ryan Torok

March 9, 2010 | 4:20 pm

Celebrating the historic partnership forged during the civil rights movement between the African American and Jewish communities, two events drew from the spirit of Black History Month with an eye toward building a stronger, collaborative future between the two groups.

At the California African American Museum, an estimated 400 supporters gathered for “Rekindling the Bond — Reflect, Respond, Renew,” the Los Angeles African American Jewish Connection’s (LAAAJC) inaugural gathering on Feb. 25.

Organized around the issue of ending genocide in Darfur, the newly formed coalition includes the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Congress of Racial Equality of California, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Los Angeles Urban League.

“This wasn’t just about nostalgia,” said Randall Brown, director of interreligious affairs with AJC’s Los Angeles chapter. Brown explained that LAAAJC aims to define the civil rights issues of the 21st century, such as economic justice and energy independence, while ensuring communication between the Jewish and black communities to do so.

Surrounded by the museum’s pieces of politically charged art, L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel reflected on her experience working with five-term L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, the city’s only African American mayor.

Political analyst and Jewish Journal contributor Raphael Sonenshein moderated a panel featuring freedom rider Robert Farrell, who recalled the hot topics of the time of his activism: nonviolence, Gandhi and Holden Caulfield.

Joining Farrell were freedom riders Ralph D. Fertig, Helen Singleton and Willy Siegel-Leventhal. Each spoke candidly about combating racial segregation in the 1950s and ’60s.

A week later, on March 4, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) held its fundraiser, “A View From the Mountaintop,” at the Skirball Cultural Center.

In separate speeches, PJA Executive Director Elissa Barrett and the Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights leader and the evening’s keynote speaker, insisted that Jews and African Americans must continue a relationship predicated on shared progressive values.

“Whatever went on then,” Lawson said, referring to the civil rights movement, “we have to do far better in the 21st century.”

Barrett called attention to PJA’s advocacy work, highlighting the organization’s fight for better pay for low-wage workers, its goals to reform the criminal justice system and, finally, plans to eradicate food deserts — neighborhoods where residents lack access to supermarkets.

PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, who came straight from the editing room — where he was busy putting the finishing touches on a soon-to-air documentary about Martin Luther King Jr. — spoke, citing the inspirational partnership between King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a relationship that serves as a microcosm for a larger Jewish and African American affinity during that time.

Gina Nahai, a best-selling author and Journal contributor, moderated a panel featuring Lawson; Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founding rabbi of IKAR; and Manuel Pastor, a USC professor of geography as well as American studies and ethnicity. The discussion focused on the hunger crisis, marriage equality and people’s apathy toward problems that don’t directly affect them.

In the audience, Jewish Federation President Jay Sanderson mingled, as did Nahai’s husband, H. David Nahai, a senior adviser to the Clinton Climate Initiative.

“I’m proud to be here,” Sanderson told The Journal. “The Progressive Jewish Alliance is one of those great, young organizations that supports important work.”

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