Magazine Feature

Around the Freedom Table

Black and Jewish youths share a heritage of liberation.

After tasting the flat, bland square of matzoh, the best that 16-year-old Requanal Griffin can offer is a diplomatic "It's all right."

Jennifer Hirsek, also at the seder table, quickly tries to soften the impression: "It needs butter," she says. "It's a lot better with butter."

Griffin and about a dozen other African-American teenagers, sitting at four long tables in the basement of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Ala., are participating in their first Jewish/African American seder, sponsored by PEACE Birmingham (People Establishing a Cultural Exchange). The citywide program brings together African American and Jewish teenagers to explore common dimensions of their heritage.

With the encouragement of Hirsek and the 14 other Jewish youths present, Griffin and her fellow guests inspect the carefully arranged elements on the Passover table. The unfamiliar assortment of food, they discover, is not meant to tantalize their taste buds so much as to kindle their consciousness: a small bowl of salt water symbolizes the tears shed during Jewish bondage in Egypt; horseradish is a reminder of the bitterness of enslavement; a lamb bone stands for sacrifices made for freedom; chopped apples with nuts represent the sweetness of liberation; and a boiled egg and parsley suggest springtime and renewal.

The African-American teenagers learn that Passover serves as a yearly reminder to Jews all over the world of the pain their ancestors endured during 400 years of slavery in Egypt 3,000 years ago. In addition, the guests come to understand that the sacred meal celebrates the Jews' eventual freedom and deliverance to the Promised Land as chronicled in the Old Testament book of Exodus.

While the assortment of foods may seem unusual to the African-American teens, the message behind it of never forgetting the hope, courage and faith of one's ancestors in the face of enslavement sounds strikingly familiar. Garlana Hill, a Black high school senior, begins to make connections. "Our pasts are a lot alike," she says. "Slavery kept African Americans from learning our identity. Our heritage was lost and we are still feeling the effects. Things we are going through now came from things that happened back then."

In the same vein, the Jewish teenagers make connections to more recent affronts on their heritage. "Jews lost their identity in the Holocaust," Hirsek says. "That was the point, to get rid of Jewish identity."

And Hill points out another common thread: "Slavery was meant to break our spirits and kill us, but the flip side went against that, because for some, it just made us stronger." Hill, Hirsek and the rest are seeing that both groups experienced oppression and bigotry, yet their cultures managed to endure.


A Starting Point

Such insights -- born of fellowship rather than history lessons -- are a central goal of PEACE Birmingham and similar Black/Jewish youth dialogue projects. Although African Americans and Jews worked closely together during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, many people cite such factors as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitic rhetoric and the lack of Jewish support for affirmative action as evidence that this historic alliance has deteriorated . Increasingly, however, Blacks and Jews across the country are challenging the idea that these rifts must define their complex relationship. Many have joined together to break down barriers at the grass-roots level.

The somewhat structured setting of a Passover seder, Kwanzaa celebration or other cultural event offers people who might not otherwise mingle socially a starting point for meaningful interaction. Sometimes, individual members of an African American and a Jewish congregation will host an informal gathering. Other programs make more concerted and sustained efforts at forging positive Black/Jewish relations. And many of the most successful of these initiatives have focused on teenagers.

PEACE Birmingham, which started in 1995, is one of those groups. It helps high school students branch out beyond neighborhood boundaries. In addition to the seder, the group has visited a Southern plantation and built a Habitat for Humanity house together. For many of the students, these encounters present the first opportunity they have ever had to construct friendships across religious and racial lines.

Todd Martin, 17, says that before he joined PEACE Birmingham in 1996 he didn't have any African American friends. The experience has helped him reassess some long-held attitudes. "At one meeting," he recalls, "we discussed Louis Farrakhan. I had never thought about him from a Black perspective. I started to see how proud a lot of the Black people in the group were that a million Black men could come together for what they saw as a constructive purpose. Until then, I had just thought of the Million Man March as a million people following an anti-Semitic leader."

Mark Gaines, one of the African-American adult organizers of PEACE Birmingham, says the program hopes to offer young people such positive encounters to replace any negative stereotypes. "It gives the kids a chance to learn what sets of experiences lead someone to make certain assumptions about them as African Americans or as Jewish people. And then it helps them develop the skills to challenge those assumptions in a way where we all learn, and we get past the fear, the unknown."

Lois Cohen, education director for Temple Emanu-El and a driving force behind PEACE Birmingham, says it was indeed the antagonism she heard coming from Louis Farrakhan that propelled her to organize the group in 1995. "I knew his message had a lot of positives to it and was very empowering for Black males," she says, "but I also felt part of it was based on exclusion and hate. That worried me. And I thought more needed to be done about communication between Blacks and Jews. We needed to know more about them, and they needed to know more about us."


A Sense of Urgency

In larger cities like New York, with vast and varied populations of Black and Jewish people in close proximity to each other, the need for repairing the rifts is sometimes a more immediate matter of life and death. A few incidents in New York City have revealed the worst-case results of Black/Jewish hostility. In 1991, riots errupted after a Black child was killed by an Orthodox Jewish driver in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A group of Black men randomly stabbed an Orthodox Jewish man in retaliation. And in 1995, a Black man set a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem on fire and shot seven people inside.

A sense of urgency is what spurred Richard Green, the Black leader of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, to join formally with Jewish community leaders seven years ago to help kids in their neighborhood come together in the wake of the 1991 riots. The effort was complicated because both groups in the neighborhood comprised mostly recent immigrants with staunchly held religious beliefs -- Russian Jews and Caribbean Christians.

Green says his group started slowly with informal conversations between the young people, ranging in age from about 7 to 20. Then the youths progressed to playing ball and planting gardens. As they grew more familiar with each other, some of the members even wrote Black/Jewish rap songs, which they have performed nationally. One rap is called "Funky Racists."

Funky racists, funky, funky racists.
Funky racists try to keep us all confused.
Funky racists, funky, funky racists.
They go around spreading lies about Blacks and Jews.

"It may seem trivial," says Green, "to write a song together, plant a garden or share a meal. But that unrehearsed interaction leads children to a comfort zone with each other where casual conversation can answer questions not normally asked and can dispel life-long stereotypes. There has been a tremendous leap since we began, in terms of understanding and keeping the peace throughout the community."

Efforts at sharing that often remain superficial among adults can have profound meaning for young people, Green says. "Symbols mean a lot to kids. Something as simple as all wearing the same 'Increase the Peace' T-shirts can go a long way. So if a Black kid looks at a Jewish kid and sees he is wearing the same T-shirt, it forges a bond."

The lessons of the Crown Heights violence reach beyond the neighborhood in a program started by New York State Supreme Court justices Jerome Hornblass, an Orthodox Jew, and William C. Thompson, who is Black. In the wake of the turmoil, the judicial colleagues began to explore ways to rebuild the kind of coalition between Blacks and Jews they had both experienced firsthand during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The death in 1993 of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall -- for both men an emblem of that spirit -- spurred them to organize a youth program called Blacks and Jews in Conversation.

Points of Tension

African Americans and Jewish Americans have a long history of shared concerns. The message of deliverance in the Book of Exodus, for example, has always held a special appeal for African American Christians. In the early part of this century, Blacks and Jews worked together to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League.


During the Civil Rights Movement, Black activists were joined by Jewish supporters on the front lines. The lives and deaths of James Chaney, an African American, and his Jewish colleagues, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- murdered by Mississippi Klansmen in 1964 -- starkly illustrate that bond.


In recent decades, however, members of both groups have observed that distrust and resistance are eroding this affinity. Political conflicts have grown more heated, and cultural alienation appears more prevalent. Most African Americans and Jews who have analyzed the relationship trace the perceived breakdown back through the same points of tension.


Some Jews assert that the Black Power movement of the mid-1960s, with its rejection of integration ideals, was an affront to Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights struggle. And when Black leaders voiced support for Palestinians around that same time, many Jews were further offended.


African American activists point to Israeli investment in South Africa during apartheid days as a sticking point. And some see the lack of Jewish American support for affirmative action since the 1960s as an example of how Jews stopped sharing their quest for equal economic opportunity.


More recently, one fractious figure has managed to polarize Black-Jewish relations. Many Jews and others have been alarmed by the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan and by the lack of a firm denunciation of him by other Black leaders.


Mark Gaines, one of the organizers of PEACE Birmingham, sees his group as an answer to those concerns. "The Jewish kids can say, 'Mark is Black and he doesn't act that way.' We allow a safe environment so they can talk about those issues and learn that not all African Americans are anti-Semitic or follow Farrakhan's teachings. They learn that you have to break away from assumptions."

At least once a month, the judges invite students from all over New York City into their courtrooms for frank discussions about racism and anti-Semitism. Some 200 local judges and lawyers have also gotten involved. In 1995, the group united students from the public Martin Luther King Jr. High School, which is all-Black, and a Jewish private school, Solomon Schechter High. Since then, the students at the schools have held joint discussion sessions on subjects such as slavery and have taken field trips to art museums together. Under the auspices of Blacks and Jews in Conversation, similar alliances have been formed around the New York City area.

In 1996, about 400 students took part in a series of meetings organized by Blacks and Jews in Conversation to address racism and violence. In addition, the group has expanded to include other ethnic minorities. Justice Thompson says the group works because young people respect and listen to judges. He and his colleagues openly capitalize on their public status in modeling the importance of mutual understanding.

"The trick is for them to learn about each other, then they become more tolerant," Thompson says. "The riots and violence, for the most part, come from the kids, not the adults. If you reach the kids, you solve a lot of your problems."

On a national and international scale, one of the most ambitious projects aimed at African American and Jewish teenagers is Operation Understanding. Started in 1985 in Philadelphia by former U.S. Representative William Gray, now president of the United Negro College Fund, and George Ross, managing director of the investment firm Goldman Sachs, the program takes a dozen or so Black and Jewish young people each year on a trip to Israel and Africa. The original group spawned a similar effort in San Diego and another in Washington, D.C., which sponsors a youth trip through the Southeast each summer to visit landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement.


Crossing Boundaries

That sharing of in-depth experiences, says Cherie Brown, is a recurring component of the groups she has seen succeed with young people. Brown is executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute, a 14-year-old organization that trains people to cross racial and religious boundaries. In addition, Brown notes, only groups that directly address what she calls the three main areas of tension in Black/Jewish relations get beyond the superficial.

"You have to work through racism among Jews, anti-Semitism among Blacks, and class issues on both sides," she observes. "If you avoid those rough spots, you are not building what we call authentic relationships among the kids." Another barrier she feels must be addressed is the tremendous pressure placed on many teenagers by family and peers not to interact outside their race or religion.

During the PEACE Birmingham seder, some of those difficult issues arise when Coretta Thomas, an African American high school senior, discusses hearing the word "Jew" used as a verb to indicate cheating in business practices. "I've heard people say, 'He's going to Jew you.' To me that was just their ignorance that made them say that."

The Jewish teenagers agree and go on to discuss what they do when they hear racial slurs from other White people. "I hate the 'N-word,'" says 17-year-old Todd Martin. "It makes me so mad, and when I hear White people using it, I always speak up."

During most of the discussion, Requanal Griffin does not say much; she just takes it all in. The seder is her first experience with PEACE Birmingham and one of her first encounters with Jewish people. Afterwards, she says she definitely wants to come back to another meeting. "I think it is good to know about others and to learn about their lives and what they are offended by, and for them to learn the same from us."

Then she confides, "I was overwhelmed that they could understand what we have gone through. I'm so used to hearing White people dogging us out. That they can understand and take up for us shocked me, in a good way. I had never heard that before. Also, I had no idea that Jews felt so deeply about Passover or that they had been discriminated against, too."

Later that night, Requanal felt the impact of the gathering carry over into her everyday life. At the grocery store with her mother, she saw some matzoh and other Passover foods on the shelf. Although she was not tempted to buy any, she observes, "A year ago I wouldn't have even noticed that food or known what it was, but this year I did. I thought a little more about the Passover message behind the food and the Jewish people I had met. I thought about how much I liked the open discussion and how having the chance to express yourself in front of another race can make you feel free."

On the Road to Understanding

For 17-year-old Emily Pitlick, the Operation Understanding DC summer trip got off to a stirring start at Ellis Island. She and the group's other Jewish members reveled in the place that connected them to past generations of their families. At the same time, Emily noticed a different reaction among her African American companions. "They were upset," she recalls, "because there wasn't a place for them to go, where they can look up their ancestors on a computer."


Rebecca Stoil, also 17, adds, "For my grandparents, America is the place where they came to escape oppression. It represents freedom. But for African Americans, this country is the place of their oppression. That is a really different perspective."


Such insights are the figurative destination of a 25-day student pilgrimage honoring the Civil Rights Movement and the cultural heritage of African Americans and Jews. A few days into the trip, after dinner at a suburban Memphis chain restaurant, the busload of 22 Washington, D.C., teenagers head back to the college dorm where they'll stay for the night. On the drive, they laugh and argue as naturally as any high school friends.


But, amid the normal chatter about SAT scores, sports, music and cars, another thread of conversation sets the group apart: Discussions of Nazism and reverse racism, affirmative action and Hasidic traditions are daily fare for the members of Operation Understanding DC.


At the dorm, everyone lounges in the lobby on couches and the floor as group leaders Christian Dorsey, who is Black, and Melinda Pollack, who is Jewish, guide them through a discussion of their feelings and thoughts from the past few days. Sixteen-year-old D'Vaughn Spencer, who has grown up in southeast Washington, D.C., talks about losing his much-practiced cool that morning at the National Civil Rights Museum. The downtown Memphis facility encompasses the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.


"I mean, I don't get that emotional usually," D'Vaughn says, "but I was standing right there and seeing the place where Dr. King last stood, and the bloodstain -- it just got to me."


He isn't the only one. In fact, the intensive odyssey, which starts in New York City and then winds through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, is designed to "get to" all of the participants, one by one.


Rebecca Stoil observes, "It's the things that might seem trivial that really bring us together. I found out that Black people have as much trouble with their hair as I do with my Jewish hair. We both have frizzy, curly hair. That kind of thing really shows you what you have in common. And that becomes a launching point for deeper friendships to develop."


Emily Pitlick experienced a similar satisfaction when one of her Black friends used a common Jewish idiom. "I heard Elita say 'Oy vay' on the bus today. It was great!"


Operation Understanding DC was organized three years ago by Karen Kalish, a former journalist. Each year's "class" -- recruited from schools and congregations across the city -- convenes in January with a retreat and a series of presentations and cultural activities to teach the teenagers about their own and each other's history, culture and religion. The summer trip is the second phase. During the remainder of the year, the students give talks and lead discussions at schools, churches and synagogues in the D.C. area about issues of diversity and discrimination.


D'Vaughn Spencer, for one, is looking forward to sharing his newfound perspectives with others when he gets back home. "In the last few days," he says, "I have seen more and grown more and met more kinds of people than I have in a lifetime in southeast D.C. I already have a whole new outlook on the world."

For more information, contact:

Karen Kalish
Operation Understanding DC
2120 S St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
(202) 234-6832
Fax (202) 387-8488

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