For Openers: Building Alliances Over Dinner
It’s 7:30 p.m. on Friday night, and the dinner party called for 7 p.m. has just reached enough critical mass to get started. Jokes are made about “Jewish time,” “black time” and the fact that we never would have begun on time.
Twenty-five young professionals and creatives are piled into an event room in the penthouse of a Downtown Detroit apartment building; what they have in common is that they are Jewish and/or black, live in or around Detroit, are doing interesting and overlapping work, and care deeply about the impact of their lives and the impact of their lives on the city. They are there to eat Shabbat dinner, cooked (vegetarian and in tremendous portions) by a chef behind a black-owned Detroit food business, make friends with one another and share what they are working on.
This is the premise of the Coalition Series, a string of monthly-ish invitation-only events launched in early 2018, that meets for Shabbat dinners in Downtown lofts. The dinners have now seen a total of 76 unique attendees, participating in rotation (smaller groups keep things intimate).
At the dinners, we start by lighting tea light Shabbat candles spread across the table. We say Kiddush (the long version), reflecting on our ability to sanctify anything and everything and our capacity to hold space, and we say HaMotzi, either touching the challah or touching someone who’s touching the challah, etc.
For one dinner, Chef Godwin Ihentuge, of the forthcoming YumVillage restaurant in the New Center area, cooked Nigerian jollof rice, plantains, maafe (West African peanut stew) and a giant challah-cinnamon-French-toast-bake for dessert. At another dinner, a Detroit DJ (Bernan Bush — he’s excellent) taught us how to properly eat the cornbread and Liberian-inflected collard greens on our plates. There is lots of wine and lots of l’chayims. There is usually an ice-breaker, where with rare vulnerability we introduce ourselves and whatever we are working on or thinking of that is most important to us.
The dinners are the brainchild of Jacob Smith, a Jewish Detroiter inspired by the institutional work of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a partnership between the JCRC and the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity that emerged in response to the “Unite the Right” rallies in Charlottesville last year. The partnership draws on the historic alliance between two communities marginalized by white supremacy and seeks to redouble the active organizing work that desegregated buses in the south and choice Metro Detroit neighborhoods.
Smith, along with JCRC executive director David Kurzmann and leaders from the progressive Jewish community-building organization The Well, started brainstorming about what could be done on a grassroots level to strengthen these intercommunal ties and how to bring them to an audience of millennials poised to inherit communal leadership.
“The ultimate goal,” Smith says, “is to inspire collaboration between black and Jewish Detroiters by fostering authentic relationships. Our only ask for the group is that everyone finds someone whom they didn’t previously know to grab coffee, lunch or a drink.”
Effectively, we are there to diversify our friend groups. Our friends and the tight-knit communities we identify with are some of the biggest contributors to our success: Friends serve as emotional supporters, social and professional introducers, potential business partners and artistic collaborators, moral referenda on our life choices, event inviters and co-adventurers. Jewish communities are among the best at this. And even though I, a young city-dwelling Jew, consider myself progressive with a diverse set of friends, how many of my close friends — the friends whom I invite to my home or regularly go out to drinks with — are actually from different backgrounds than myself? How many opportunities do I truly have to meet new like-minded friends who come from different communities? How many are from the majority (83 percent) black community I’ve moved into here in the city of Detroit? How intentional am I about building deep, non-transactional relationships that will go on to be lifelong allyships? How might we create opportunities to do this at scale?
These dinners create that opportunity and visibly strike a chord with attendees, who all want to come back for more, calling them “cathartic,” “energizing” and “one of the best events I’ve ever attended in Detroit.” The next challenge the organizers face is how to grow to accommodate the returnees along with new attendees, to host Shabbaton retreats or Juneteenth events, perhaps to get everyone in the same room, to expand to other cities and communities that have expressed interest. Seems like they’re up for the challenge.
Lauren Hoffman is a millennial transplant to Detroit, works at Rock Ventures and is actively involved in the Detroit Jewish community.