Living in a community defined by real relationships and trust is important for the future of the black-Jewish communities.
By Rabbi Sam Englender
Last month, I found myself sitting in an auditorium in Detroit together with hundreds of people. I most likely was the only Jew in the audience. All around me were African American men, women and schoolchildren. Extra chairs were brought in, but there still wasn’t enough room. I was lucky and found some extra space sitting on a set of stairs, squeezed in next to a middle-aged woman. There were so many attendees that an overflow room was arranged so that everyone would be able to listen to the presentation.
Surprisingly, the topic of the panel that attracted such a crowd was the black-Jewish relationship. It was over two hours of discussion and explication, debating the commonalities and parallel historical experiences of the black and Jewish communities respectively, and the ways that our future as Americans is tied together. Due to the scintillating intelligence and rhetorical power of some of the panelists, it was also one of the most entertaining lectures I’ve ever attended. But the lecture itself is not what stuck in my head as I left. What truly caught me was the number of people, almost all black, who had shown up to think through the issue of black-Jewish relations, a topic I hadn’t even known was being widely considered in the African American community here in Detroit.
Last March, I moved back home to Metro Detroit, accompanied by my wife, Jenna, and my 19-month-old daughter Maya. I had spent the last decade or so away from Michigan, first in Israel and then in New York City. In Israel, I fell in love with Israeli warmth and brusqueness, worked in hi-tech and started to explore the world of Jewish text and ritual.
In our tradition, I discovered a beautiful welter of values that helped me to become a more mature and morally aware form of myself. I channeled my innate curiosity and decided I would do my best to be lomed m’kol adam, to learn from each individual.
I eventually decided to attend rabbinical school in New York City. While I was there, I was struck by the incredible diversity of the city. When at their best, New Yorkers all share a sense of trust, an understanding that while their cuisine, languages and religions might be different, everyone is there for the same reason, to make a better life for themselves and their families.
So, when after rabbinical school, a job came open at the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC in Detroit to help the Jewish community build ties with their neighbors, I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to strengthen my home community, the place where I was born and raised.
Now, in my role as JCRC/AJC community outreach manager, I am honored to have a job where I constantly get to ask, “What kind of Metro Detroit do we want to live in?” Do we simply want to live in a place where we happen to live together, where we don’t know and possibly even fear our neighbors? Or do we want to live in a community defined by real relationship and trust?
More and more people are realizing that the answer must be the latter. Nationally, our very own U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence has co-founded a new bipartisan Black-Jewish Caucus in Congress. The JCRC/AJC has spearheaded this work locally in partnership with the Council of Baptist Pastors through the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity.
I think back to the recent black-Jewish panel I attended in Detroit, and I am buoyed by a sense of hope. It seems we are all thirsting to live in a more united city and region, a place defined by the common ties that bind us and not the differences that set us apart. I hope that you will join us in this important and energizing work.
Rabbi Sam Englender is the community outreach manager for the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC. If you are interested in learning more about the coalition or how to get involved, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.