Jewish-Baptist Duo Talk Candidly on Race, Religion and Rock ‘n’ Roll

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 Hazzan Harold Messinger of Beth Am Israel and James Pollard Jr., a member of Zion Baptist Church, have taken their friendship to a new level with a timely podcast that mixes music with topics of race and religion.

Hazzan Harold Messinger of Beth Am Israel and James Pollard Jr., a member of Zion Baptist Church, are not shy about talking about race — whether in a serious or lighthearted fashion. 
 
“He really knows more black music than I do, which I am ashamed to say,” Pollard said, laughing during a phone interview with the two.
 
“I will say, though, that James knows nothing about klezmer — and still knows nothing about klezmer, but what are you going to do?” asked Messinger.
 
The chemistry between the two friends is evident and part of the reason they started to turn on the microphone while taking jabs at one another — to create their “Can You Feel It?” podcast, which began in September.
 
The podcast is the latest link in a long chain of relations between black and Jewish institutions on the Main Line. In the wake of the recent police killings of black males in Missouri, New York and Ohio, there has been much talk about the extra challenges that black Americans face and how those differences can divide communities.
 
But because of the history between Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley and Zion Baptist Church, in this small sliver of the Philadelphia suburbs, there is less hostile ground to cross. In short, the race conversation started long before Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo., this summer.
 
Messinger “schools me, and I school him, and this has been going on for years, and we talk about very difficult subjects,” said Pollard.
 
The two first met about eight years ago because of the connections among Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation, Main Line Reform Temple and Zion Baptist Church, dating back to the early 1990s. Pollard’s father, the Rev. James Pollard, visited Main Line Reform and met Rabbi Max Hausen, who was the religious leader there at the time.
 
The two “immediately agreed that it was very important for us to exchange pulpits and bring our congregations together,” recalled Hausen, who has since retired. He spoke to the congregation at a Sunday morning service at the Baptist church; the elder Pollard spoke at Shabbat services on a Friday night.
 
That initial idea grew into a regular collaboration. The two congregations — along with members of Beth Am Israel — formed a Unity Choir, which performed songs from the Jewish and gospel traditions, as well as pop songs. Beth Am and the church also later started to hold a “Freedom Seder,” during Passover, and all three institutions join annually for Shabbat services before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
 
In a meeting to plan the seder about eight years ago, Messinger recalled, he suggested that attendees sing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” by Nina Simone, the soulful singer and civil rights leader. 
 
Pollard looks “at me like, ‘What! How do you know that song?’ ” said Messinger.
 
The two ended up performing a few Beatles’ songs together at the seder and realized that they had similar musical tastes. In 2011, Messinger, Pollard and other members of the choir recorded “These Songs of Freedom,” a compilation of Jewish, gospel, pop and reggae music.
 
Pollard, who grew up in Ardmore, and Messinger, who grew up in Havertown, continued to get together for coffee, which led to the podcast in which they discuss “race, religion and rock and roll.” The title, “Can You Feel It?” (soundcloud.com/harold­messinger) comes from one of their favorite Jackson 5 songs. So far, they’ve aired two episodes and are aiming to continue their venture. 
 
“We’re just having fun, andwe thought, maybe someone else will think it’s fun, too,” said Messinger, 45.
 
“We’re discussing real and sometimes uneasy topics,” said Pollard, 42. 
 
Before the St. Louis County grand jury last month decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Brown, Pollard said during their second podcast: “He's going to get off. You heard me say it. This cop is going to get off, and St. Louis will burn down. I’m not being prophetic; I’m just telling you.”
 
Pollard then questioned the legal arguments that could be used in Wilson’s defense before Messinger moved the conversation in a different direction, saying he couldn’t relate to some of the challenges that black men face.
 
“I’m a short, skinny, white Jewish guy, and I may have other insecurities about my physical size late at night walking down the street, but it’s nothing that I think compares to” what Pollard, a 6- feet-3-inch black man, experiences in terms of racial profiling, he said.
 
Pollard then shared a story about being pulled over in New York a few weeks earlier for no apparent reason — because he had been "in the left lane for too long,” he said the officer told him.
 
“For people who don’t know me, I don’t think I fit the description of a 'Tupac thug.’ I’d be more in line as far as dressing with Carlton Banks,” Pollard said, referring to the goofy cousin on “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
 
Jokes aside, Pollard and Messinger agreed that these sorts of conversation are crucial. 
 
“As I said in the podcast and as I challenge people, ‘Go learn outside your religion and get a friend and just talk to him, and you’ll be enlightened,' ” said Pollard. “I ask questions of Harold that I’m sure a lot of black people would want to know, but they are not going to ask.” 
 
For example, after basketball commentator Charles Barkley’s comments in the wake of the Ferguson decision drew backlash from others in the black community, Pollard asked Messinger if Jewish leaders have the same sort of fights. 
 
His response: See Israel.
 
In contrast to the idea that differences make having a conversation more difficult, in their case, Messinger said, they actually can make it easier. 
 
“It’s not a friendship that I think puts limits on where we can take the conversation, but I think James can hear me because he may not be emotionally invested in the conversation about Israel the same way I am not emotionally invested when there is stuff going on” between black leaders, he said.
 
“It’s not only that I’m curious, but that I have an empathy for it and that I have a sense that what’s happening in any community, but especially with the black community, is relevant, the same way what’s happening with Israel is relevant around the world.”
 
The links between the two communities will be on display the first night of Chanukah, when members of Beth Am Israel light the menorah at Zion Baptist Church.
 
“It feels like Chanukah is a very fitting time,” Messinger said, “to bring light to the fact that we're together with them, and it's not meant as a political act; it’s not meant as a provocative act. We just felt like this is a great chance to bring our celebration to their community and share it with them.”

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