As we prepare for Passover, Jews contemplate our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt.
Numerous cultures around the world have institutionalized slavery, but for Americans, slavery means race-based enslavement of Blacks in America.
As we prepare for Passover, Jews contemplate our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt. Freedom came to our ancestors, in the biblical account, by Divine intervention. The end of slavery came to Blacks in America by the Union victory in the Civil War, but the long quest for freedom and equality drags on.
Rabbi Kenneth Chelst of Southfield, a professor in the College of Engineering at Wayne State University, devotes a book, Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African American Slavery, to comparing the experience of slavery and exodus as presented in the Bible and in later Jewish thought with the historical experience of slavery and emancipation as experienced by Blacks in America.
He emphasizes that “Blacks saw God’s hand in their emancipation and the Civil War just as Lincoln did in his second inaugural address.” Rabbi Chelst hopes that Jews and Blacks can use his book as part of their mutual discussion of the Bible and contemporary issues.
That discussion happens in the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a partnership of the Council of Black Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity and the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC. The co-directors of the coalition are Mark Jacobs of the JCRC/AJC and the Rev. Kenneth James Flowers, senior pastor at Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.
In words that echo Rabbi Chelst’s observation, Rev. Flowers states: “Blacks were brought to this country in chains. We were considered property, not fully human. This happened with the sanction of the government. We are the only group enslaved by law as chattel. And indeed, people have worked hard to tell us that we are not fully human. That damages the psyche.
“But people in the Black Church read the story of Moses, that God called on Moses and delivered the slaves in Egypt, and we believed that God would deliver us,” Rev. Flowers continued. “We believed that God is on the side of the downtrodden. The biblical narrative promised us that God would give us what we needed. This belief has helped to sustain us through the era of slavery and through the era of Jim Crow.”
Jacobs describes the work of the coalition: “to promote solidarity between both communities as well as speaking out against racism and antisemitism.”
Ashira Solomon, who serves as community associate with JCRC/AJC, supporting the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, notes another connection: “Antisemitism and racism go hand-in-hand … The Nazi lawyers modeled their anti-Jewish legislation on existing anti-Black legislation in America. They looked to American discrimination against Black people to create legislation against Jews.”
Solomon says that a positive response “starts with education. Meeting people out of our comfort zone enables us to realize them as friends.” Her own background — growing up Black and Jewish in Oak Park — brought her into diverse communities. We need to “listen to actual people, instead of listening to our thoughts about what those people are,” she said.
Then we liberate ourselves from uninformed notions about others, notions Solomon calls “slavery of the mind.”
Desiree Cooper, who was a journalist with the Detroit Free Press for 11 years, notes that Jews and African Americans remember the Holocaust and slavery.
The goal, according to Cooper, is not that we engage in “competitions of victimhood. A better response would be ‘I am sorry that happened to you. How can we make sure that never happens again?’”
Cooper notes that “Detroit has a history of amazing connections between the Black and Jewish communities.”
The Jewish Federation’s FedRadioDetroit posted an interview in November with Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue Rabbi Ariana Silverman and her friend, Pastor Aramis Hinds of the Breakers Covenant Church International. Pastor Hinds referred to the biblical account of 400 years of the Jews in Egypt in describing the parallel experiences of slavery. He invoked the continuing need for our communities to build on those connections and share the work of enhancing freedom.
Rabbi Silverman, observed that “we define our lives in stories.” She feels inspired by stories of Jews and Blacks working together during for the Civil Rights Movement 60 years ago. Now she feels a different challenge: “What are we doing now that our grandchildren will remember in 60 years?”