Storytellers Corinne Stavish and Rev. Robert Jones Sr. along with event organizer Steve Merritt.
Storytellers Corinne Stavish and Rev. Robert Jones Sr. along with event organizer Steve Merritt.

Everyone involved said it was only fitting to tell the stories of Jewish and Black struggles for freedom while keeping in mind the ongoing struggle for freedom in Ukraine.

Nationally recognized storytellers Corinne Stavish and Rev. Robert Jones Sr. provided an evening of stories and songs on the theme of freedom while drawing on Jewish and Black experiences on April 20 at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield. 

The program was a fundraiser for refugees displaced in the current fight for freedom in Ukraine. The artists waived their fees, and all proceeds, more than $10,000, have been donated to HIAS, an international refugee relief organization. 

Stavish performs nationally and specializes in personal, historical and biblical narratives. She was named the Detroit Jewish Woman Artist of the Year in 2001 and has received the National Storytelling Network’s Circle of Excellence Award. 

Jones is a singer, songwriter, storyteller and self-taught on many instruments, which he uses to play folk, blues, spirituals and other American Roots music. He has performed professionally throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.

The program was spearheaded by Temple Kol Ami and co-sponsored by 21 organizations, including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network, Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)/AJC and many other synagogues and other Jewish and Black organizations.

Gathering during the holy week of Passover, everyone involved said it was only fitting to tell the stories of Jewish and Black struggles for freedom while keeping in mind the ongoing struggle for freedom in Ukraine. 

Stavish told the story of visiting the now-closed Friheds Museum on a trip to Denmark and learning about how the majority of Denmark’s Jews escaped being captured by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Although Sweden’s king had originally aligned the country with Nazi Germany, Danish physicist Niels Bohr persuaded him to allow Denmark’s Jews to find refuge in his country. As Nazi forces took over Denmark in 1943, about 7,200 Danish Jews were safely ferried over to Sweden by Danish fishermen over a three-week period, saving 95 percent of the country’s Jews.

“I’m left so speechless by some of the stories,” said Steve Merritt, the event organizer. “The Denmark story shocked me. I found myself crying. We’re not so used to that kind of decency  … and being exposed to a whole society that works together when we’re in a period of such division.”

A group of over a dozen people from the First Congregational Church of Detroit came to witness the stories and songs expressing the connection the Black community and Jewish community have in their historical fights for freedom. 

Merritt is interested in seeing more connection between the two communities. His goals include doing a Black-Jewish seder and Temple Kol Ami forming a relationship with an African American congregation. 

“I like to bring people together with others who are not like them,” Merritt said. “So often we self-select to be with people who are like us and we feel comfortable with, but I like events where people rub shoulders with others who are different from them.”

A poignant quote from Yehuda Baeur, Israeli historian and scholar of the Holocaust, was on the event flyer. “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” 

“And I think that was sort of the theme here,” Merritt said. “That it’s up to us to stand up when we see what’s happening in Ukraine, and it’s up to us to stand up when we see things in the Black or Jewish community and speak out.” 

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