December 16, 2018

How do we regain black-Jewish love?

Of all the complicated issues running through American Jewish life, one of the most complicated is surely the relationship between Jews and African-Americans, which has frayed in recent years. A key question for both communities as we go forward is: How can we inject more love into the relationship?

There were times when the two communities were a lot closer. As Michelle Boorstein wrote in 2013 in the Washington Post, “Jews were extremely active in the civil rights movement, and they played a role that was especially remarkable in light of their making up such a small part of the nation’s population.”

Unfortunately, the good vibes of the ’60s didn’t last. By the 1980s and 1990s, the relationship was “strained by such points of contention as the opposition of some Jewish leaders to affirmative action and anti-Jewish comments made by black leaders Jesse L. Jackson and Louis Farrakhan.” More recently, the division over controversial Israeli policies has frayed the relationship even further.

There are also elephants in the room no one likes to talk about, like vestiges of racism and anti-Semitism. And let’s face it, as Jews became more and more successful, it became harder and harder to identify with oppressed minorities.

Like I said, complicated.

But I found a ray of hope last Saturday night at a movie screening dedicated to Black History Month. Hosted by the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, which houses the Malibu Film Society, an ethnically mixed audience of about 300 watched a 40-minute excerpt of an unfinished documentary produced by Spill the Honey, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the ties between the two groups, titled “Shared Legacies: Honoring the Jewish/Black Civil Rights Alliance.”

The film chronicles the intense bond between Jewish and Black activists during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But the heart of the film is the deep affection between two giants, Martin Luther King Jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously marched together in 1963 during a civil rights march in Selma, Ala.

As much as I value complexity, what moved me most about the film was that it honored morality and holiness. King and Heschel were brothers bonding over a common cause. There was no agonizing. There was no doubt. There was no hesitation in their compulsion to fight for justice.

This sense of moral clarity and brotherly love came through in a panel after the screening that featured actor Louis Gossett Jr., Boston University professor Hillel Levine, King confidant Clarence B. Jones and Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel.

Maybe it was the moonlight drive along the coast that put me in a wistful mood, but as I drove home, I couldn’t help but wonder: “How can we get this Black-Jewish love back?”

It was something Susannah Heschel said to me over the phone a few days later that got me thinking.

“Martin Luther King made the Hebrew Bible central to his civil rights activism,” she told me. “This brought tremendous pride to Jews. Here was the most important moral movement of the century, and King put our holy book at the very center.”

Her subtle point was that the relationship was a two-way street. As much as Jews honored Blacks by fighting for their rights, King honored Jews by elevating their holy story.

I found in her answer a sign of how Jews can bring more love to our relationship with the African-American community: We can show them we need them as much as they need us.

It was Rabbi Heschel himself who said that one of the greatest human needs is to feel needed. His great insight is that making people feel needed is an expression of the deepest love.

As much as Jews must do more soul-searching and increase our fight for economic justice for Blacks, we must also embrace areas where Blacks can help us– such as, for example, in the area of prayer.

“My father once said that hope for the future of Judaism in America lies with Black churches,” Heschel told me. “Their prayers reminded him of Chassidic shtibls. There is a passion of praying to God, of wanting to be heard by God.”

What a powerful thought: Blacks teaching Jews how to pray with more love and more passion. Maybe someone should start a Black-Jewish Prayer Alliance, where Jews of all denominations would regularly visit Black churches to feel the passion that so inspired Rabbi Heschel.

None of this will eradicate the dark impulses of racism and anti-Semitism. But if there’s one thing Jews need, it is for God to hear our prayers. If our Black brothers and sisters can show us the way, well, that’s a dream worth having.