Jewish Journal

Black and Jewish leaders work to rekindle friendships at interfaith seder

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Apr. 24, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Before the Passover feast began, a few dozen black Christians joined their Jewish dinnermates for a tour of the breathtaking original sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein explained the stories of the murals that circle the auditorium, stories that end in 1929, before two of the biggest events in recent Jewish history: the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. Standing where the Dalai Lama once spoke and where composer George Gershwin was bid an eternal farewell, Stein said the temple is a place where all humanity can share in life, from worship and study to concerts and lectures.

"This is a room for the whole city," said Stein, the temple's point person for a number of interfaith and intercultural seders. "You are not just welcome: You are members here, too."

So began the April 17 seder, a gathering of a group of blacks and Jews who in recent months have sought to rekindle a decades-old friendship in hopes of fostering better relations among their broader communities. Sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), First AME Church, the Brotherhood Crusade and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the interfaith seder became the object of much anticipation earlier this month after one of its organizers was accused of being an anti-Semite.

On April 4, the Rev. Eric Lee, president and CEO of the SCLC's Los Angeles chapter, delivered the keynote address at the regional conference for Kappa Alpha Psi. In the audience was Jewish philanthropist Daphna Ziman, there to be honored by the historically black fraternity with the Tom Bradley Distinguished Citizen Award for her work as founder of Children Uniting Nations, a foster charity.

The words Ziman heard -- and Lee vehemently denies having said -- drove her from the banquet hall in tears. The next morning she fired off an e-mail to friends and a few members of the media accusing Lee of saying, "The Jews have made money on us in the music business and we are the entertainers, and they are economically enslaving us."

Though the contents of Lee's speech remain in dispute, the dust has now settled, and leaders of both communities are talking about the need to improve black-Jewish relations to limit future flare-ups.

As was evidenced in the aftermath of Ziman's e-mail, some Jews hold negative opinions of blacks, who themselves are reportedly among the most likely Americans to have anti-Semitic attitudes. Annual surveys by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) since 1992 have consistently found more than 30 percent of blacks hold "strongly" anti-Semitic views, more than triple the percentage of white Americans.

"There has been this long belief among black folks that goes back to the 1960s, when whites, including a disproportionate number of Jews, were summarily ejected from the civil rights movement," said Joe R. Hicks, who is black and from 1991 to 1996 was the local president of the SCLC, a national organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. "There is almost an investment in perpetuating this notion that Jews are somehow responsible for the continued oppression of black people. That is a political construction."

Although many Jews were unceremoniously separated from their black brethren as the seeds of the black power movement took root, in Los Angeles Jews and blacks formed a coalition that not only helped to make Tom Bradley the city's first black mayor, but also to keep him in office for 20 years.

That coalition weakened over time, however. In the mid-'80s, according to "Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles" by Raphael J. Sonenshein (a regular contributor to The Journal), pro-growth Westside liberals were being blamed by middle-class blacks for the deterioration of communities like Westchester at the same time that ambitious Jewish politicians were coming into their own and Bradley was falling out of favor. There was no official death of the black-Jewish coalition, but it has been largely dormant for more than 15 years.

And that's OK, said Hicks, now vice president of Community Advocates, Inc. Los Angeles doesn't need to awaken the black-Jewish coalition or to launch new human-relations discussions on par with the kind Hicks once led as executive director of the city's Human Relations Commission. What works best, he said, is simply getting diverse communities to interact with one another professionally, socially and civically.

Certainly, blacks and Jews have a lot of shared history.

"There is too much in common between Jews and blacks, a kinship of suffering and a history that dare not be forgotten," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, founder of Jewish World Watch. "Both the Jewish and black communities must be reminded that Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two Jews, were murdered in Mississippi fighting for the voting rights of black Americans. The Legacy of Martin Luther King and that of Abraham Joshua Heschel ought to be the way in which we enter the future."

It remains unclear exactly what efforts to improve the relationships between blacks and Jews will look like. Several leaders said their hope is not to create something politically oriented but instead to strengthen ties, increase interaction and facilitate understanding.

"There is so much to be done, so much that we want to do in our community, and I know that the Jewish community is one that is fervent about making a change and making a difference and fighting injustice," said the Rev. Brenda Lamothe, associate pastor of First AME, which for more than a decade has had a pulpit exchange with Temple Isaiah and joined L.A. Darfur Observance Day at AJC's invitation. "I foresee talking about education and about homelessness, about drug problems and issues around the world and the problems Israel is having in the Middle East and how we can help -- understanding the situation without condemning either side."

Another well-trod path being discussed is simply communing together more often. A few years ago, young leaders from the ADL and Urban League congregated to discuss what it meant to lead their communities and to hear from current leaders. Amanda Susskind, the ADL's regional director, said events like that help debunk myths while building bonds."There is just no substitute for sitting down in the same room, being in each other's presence and just talking," she said.

In fact, many said, this renewed relationship would likely take shape through events that look a lot like the seder held April 17 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

"The story we are about to tell is a story of how a broken people was made whole by freedom," said Randy Brown, AJC's L.A. director of interreligious affairs, holding up the matzah. "Later we will share this afikomen, as in days of old when the Passover offering was shared at the service in Jerusalem. Tonight that sharing has special meaning, for, all over the world, the sharing of bread forms a bond of fellowship."

Among the 50 dinner guests was the SCLC's Lee. Though his involvement with the seder predated his much-discussed speech, Lee had offered to stay home if he'd be a distraction. He was told to come.

During dinner, he and Rabbi Stephen Jacobs, emeritus of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, said they "have committed to making this a citywide event next year," in the micro-to-macro tradition of Big Sunday, which began at Temple Israel of Hollywood but now is an official day of service in Los Angeles.

"African Americans have always looked at the history of Israel as symbolic to our history," said Lee, who said he has celebrated Passover for years. "God doesn't change. He has always been the God of the oppressed, who delivers from the oppressor."

"Can you actually imagine," Lee continued, "if we lived out the principles of the seder?"

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