Building Real Bridges to African Americans

How can Jews and African Americans build better relations? It is a question many people have been seeking to answer for a long time, and yet, the ties remain frayed. Perhaps we can learn some lessons in promoting mutual respect from efforts in Israel to promote coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

In Israel, most of the impetus for improving relations between Jewish and Arab citizens comes from Jewish organizations. This is generally the case in the United States with respect to African Americans-Jewish ties. If we want change, it will likely have to be a result of our initiative.

Israelis have different approaches to their problems, but one of the most popular is the encounter method whereby the two groups are brought together for short, intense workshops or programs to learn more about each other and try to reconcile some of their differences. This has typically been the tactic used in the United States as well. Usually, Jews and African Americans come together and discuss our common interests in civil rights, the long history of working together and try to reach understandings on issues that divide us like quotas. These encounters have had only limited success.

Many Israelis have come to believe that short-term encounters are not effective because they reinforce stereotypes and focus on divisive issues rather than people. As a result, a competing school of thought has tried to promote coexistence through experiential programs that bring Jews and Arabs together for longer-term projects, programs and activities of mutual interest. The theory is that after doing fun and interesting things together, the two groups will get to know and trust each other and then will have a better chance of resolving or, at least, tolerating their differences. Thus, for example, Israeli organizations have sponsored joint programs in archaeology and photography, summer camps and community service projects.

How much of this is done here to promote Jewish-African American friendship? We are happy to talk to African Americans about how we can help them, but do we invite their children to our Jewish summer camps? Do our day schools engage in joint projects with predominantly African American schools? Some programs do exist, Operation Understanding in Philadelphia and Washington come to mind, but these are the exceptions.

Several of the Israeli programs could easily be adapted for use here. To give one example, in Haifa, one of the few mixed cities in Israel, a community center has Arab and Jewish members. Swimming, playing and studying together has promoted better relations between the two peoples. Here, Jewish community centers are technically open to non-Jews but rarely welcome them. A good example of the opportunity to reach out to African Americans and other minorities is the rededication of the JCC building in Washington, D.C. The building was shut years ago (the JCC has been run out of a small office downtown) and the surrounding area now has few, if any Jews. The building is being reopened with a pool, gym and other amenities and the Jewish community in the metropolitan area is being recruited for membership. But what efforts are being made to attract the JCC’s neighbors? Most probably cannot afford the stiff fees to join. Why not give them special “good neighbor” rates and encourage them to participate in the center’s activities?

I understand that people in the neighborhood are noticing the building and inquiring about membership, but picking up a few people to add to the rolls that way is not the same as aggressively looking for ways to bring them into the center. The objective should not be to add revenues; it should be to break down the walls that separate the Jews inside from the community around them.

Obviously, one reason Jews join JCCs is to be around other Jews. This is one difference between the situation in Israel and the U.S. There Jews have to go out of their way to mix with other people. You don’t have to turn the JCC into something indistinguishable from a YMCA to reach out to non-Jews. The point is that we can talk all we want about how much we care about African Americans and other minority groups, but if we’re not willing to play and socialize with them on a regular basis, the divide will never be bridged. The DC JCC happens to be ideally situated to facilitate such interactions, but other “Jewish” institutions around the country could offer similar opportunities.

Judaism is a religion of deeds. We’ve had plenty of dialogues with African Americans, let’s try doing more activities together and then maybe the gaps in our political and personal agendas will begin to narrow.