In the days after Bloody Sunday, when civil rights heroes like John Lewis were viciously attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the march from Selma, national religious, civic, and civil rights leaders flocked to the city to help make multiple attempts to cross the bridge and complete the march. One of those leaders was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When asked about his experience Rabbi Heschel famously stated “I felt like I was praying with my feet”.
During my time working for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council I have been steeped in the lore of the Black/Jewish Relationship that was forged during the civil rights movement. I’ve learned about King and Heschel, about Rabbi Prinz being one of the 10 speakers with Dr. King during the March on Washington in 1963, that many of the founding members of the NAACP were Jewish as were many of the white members of the Freedom Riders, the bombing of a synagogue in Atlanta who’s congregation was active in the Civil Rights movement, and of course the tragic story of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney who were viciously murdered in the summer of 1964 by Klansman in Mississippi as they worked to register voters during what has come to be called “Freedom Summer”. But that deep relationship between the Black and Jewish communities, forged in shared struggle, has weakened over time. Although there have been some seminal events that have strained the relationship, I believe the root cause of this weakening is simply that our communities have not put in the time and effort needed to maintain strong bonds, in the same way that a successful marriage takes work. At the same time that we are publicly working together on numerous policy and community issues, we were not taking the time to really get to know each other on a more basic, deeper, and personal level.
With this in mind, a very recent, and very conscious effort, was undertaken by thirty amazing young leaders in our respective communities. It was decided that the next generation of relationships must be formed so the Indianapolis Black/Jewish Partnership was created. Last week thirty individuals recently returned from the Partnership’s first program, a two day trip to Washington D.C. where participants learned from each other, shared cultural experiences, walked the halls of the new Museum of African American History and Culture and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum together, talked over meals about what it was like in Black Churches and in Synagogues, and the differences between Judaism and Christianity. Humorously Jews were taught how to shake hands with members of the African American community, and African Americans were taught some choice phrases in Yiddish. There were no limits as to what was discussed and shared. The participants of this trip have returned to Indianapolis eager to maintain the relationships that were formed over the two days, and while no specific issues currently facing either communities were discussed in-depth, they have returned eager to begin working together to tackle challenges in our city and in our communities.
My own personal experience on the trip was deep. I am a student of history, so I couldn’t help but feel like I was helping to add one little brick to that lore of the Black/Jewish Relationship. As Heschel said, I truly felt like I was praying with my feet. But, I also understood the contemporary dynamics of our relationship. That the Jewish community has largely assimilated into White America and does not face, today, the type of discrimination and injustice experienced by our Black brothers and sisters. That is why I believe this experience, and what will come out of it is so important.
The Jewish Community must be present in the discussions our country is having today that center on race. Our traditions mandate that we care about justice. But, it is not enough for us to simply say that we care because we were “once slaves in Egypt”, or that the Jewish community once felt the pangs of discriminatory practices in the United States. In a certain sense it is time for people like me, lovers of history and lore, to put away King and Heschel. My relationship with the Black community cannot simply be based on the fact that 60 years ago two giants of our respective communities shared a moment together. You care most about something when it affects you or someone you know. In that sense my community must know our brothers and sisters in the Black community. We can’t just rely on shared values or shared experiences. We should care because of our friendships, because we have been present in Black churches and at community events, because we have shared meals and celebrations together. I came away from this trip with a strong commitment to make sure that our communities know each other, not just work with each other.
For a moment, here in Indianapolis, the participants of the Black/Jewish Partnership Program’s trip to Washington D.C. have laid the building blocks for that next generation of friendships and relationships to be forged. At a final discussion re-capping the two days each member of the group was asked to publicly state “I’m In” meaning that he or she was committed to helping write the next chapter in the story of the Black/Jewish Relationship. I know that I am most definitely “In”, and if the seriousness of purpose displayed by the thirty young leaders I had the privilege to spend two days with last week is any indication, I think the future of Black/Jewish relations in the City of Indianapolis is very bright.