Charmaine Ijeoma thinks the United States needs a racial reckoning similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, the restorative justice bodies that helped South African society move forward in the aftermath of apartheid.
“We need to talk about it because you’ll hear some people say, ‘Well, that happened a long time ago.’ And I would say to them, ‘History is sitting right in the room with us. History is in our heads. History is all around us,’” she said.
Ijeoma, a Black Jewish certified veterans service officer and Old York Road Temple-Beth Am member, spoke during a panel discussion on race and diversity on Aug. 5 organized by Kehillah of Old York Road and Rabbi David Glanzberg-Kranin and Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Shalom Congregation in Elkins Park. More than 200 viewers joined the virtual event.
Ijeoma’s fellow speakers included state Sen. Art Haywood, Superintendent of Cheltenham Public Schools Wagner Marseille and architectural designer and Young Israel of Elkins Park member David Coe.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of Congregation Kol Ami moderated the discussion.
“There’s no one monolithic community of people of color, or Jewish community or community of Cheltenham, but instead we are more interested in learning the nuanced narrative that is woven from the stories of your lives and to listen to what you can teach us,” she said.
Berkowitz asked the panelists, who all identify as Black, to describe a way that race impacted their personal or professional lives.
Haywood spoke about growing up in a household that cultivated a strong sense of Black pride. He discussed how he and his wife were victims of housing discrimination when they first tried to move to Cheltenham and ended up waiting three years to buy a home there.
“We were not shown houses, and when we went to a fair housing agency, they proved that our treatment was different than that of whites,” he said. “Even today, the equity that Julie and I built up would have been more if we had moved in [during] our first attempt to move in. And this is a great explanation of the Black wealth gap — the inability to get homeownership opportunities in suburban areas where home prices are going up.”
Marseille discussed his experiences with racism in education as the son of Haitian immigrants growing up in Princeton, New Jersey.
“When you were inside the school, it seemed like everything that was bad was related to being Black. So, if you were in the low-level classes, it was relegated to the Black students. If you looked at detention, it was always the Black students who were there. When you looked at grades, Black students were not doing well. Then you transfer that into the way in which your community receives you when you walk into stores,” he said, and recalled instances of being followed around stores and trailed by police officers.
Coe, who is Orthodox, spoke about the hurdles he faced during conversion.
“I remember the rabbi saying to me, ‘You know, you may never get married.’ And for me, that was, it was a shocker,” he said. “He actually was very frank with me and he says, ‘You know, you may see some racial discrimination, you know, going through and being an Orthodox Jew.’”
Despite the rabbi’s predictions, Coe is married and has 12 children.
Ijeoma recalled police officers pointing guns at her when she was walking in her neighborhood. She remembered them physically assaulting her father without giving a reason.
“At the time, my father had had a motorcycle accident. And so his leg had been broken in four places, and it was still healing. And this detective was pushing him around, like pushing him against the car,” she said.
The panelists agreed that one of the best ways to improve race relations and prevent racial injustice is to foster dialogue.
“The shortest distance between two people is a story. And the reality is we don’t spend enough time sharing each other’s stories because of our differences and because of the history of the way our country is designed,” Marseille said.
Coe spoke about the importance of being a mensch and speaking up “if you are a non-Black person and you are amongst other non-Black people and you hear speech that has the tone of racism or discrimination,” even if the speaker doesn’t mean to be offensive.
Haywood emphasized that strong community ties could make difficult conversations about race easier for everyone, citing his experience working with the Anti-Defamation League to combat gun violence.
“We can build relationships that will hopefully then allow speaking to be more natural,” he said.
That same evening, Bucks County Kehillah hosted the webinar “Evolution of Hate: How Did We Get There? How Do We Stop It?”
Shira Goodman, regional director of the ADL in Philadelphia, spoke about the origins of hate, how hate can escalate to genocide and recent studies on hate crimes and bias incidents in the United States.
“Almost 57% of the violent crimes in 2018 were because of race or ethnicity,” Goodman said. “The next highest category is religion — almost 20% — and the religion that’s most targeted is Judaism. Fifty-nine percent of hate crimes motivated by religious bias in 2018 [targeted] Judaism.”
She also offered ways to combat hate, whether by safely intervening when an individual lashes out at someone based on their identity, reporting hate crimes to police and human rights organizations or electing leaders who commit to fighting hate in all forms.
“We need to work as hard as we can. We need to report things when we see them. We need to hold our leaders accountable. We need to hold ourselves accountable,” she said.
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