There was a lot of vulnerability in Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ on Aug. 25.
Leaders in Philadelphia’s Black and Jewish communities gathered in the church for a frank and emotional roundtable discussion to express their pain regarding recent racist and anti-Semitic events and proposed ways to move their communities forward.
Bishop J. Louis Felton, senior pastor at Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ, started with an apology.
“You can never move forward by expecting others to take blame. You have to become a part of the fact that we are all in need of forgiveness. If no one else says ‘I’m sorry,’ then I’ll say it. I’m sorry that that was such an offensive message sent out. I’m sorry that there was no immediate action taken by respective organizations,” said Felton, who also serves as first vice president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia.
“It bruised my spirit, so I’m here tonight in pain. I’m hurting because I know that my brothers and sisters are hurting,” he continued.
The Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia organized the roundtable in response to an anti-Semitic meme posted to Facebook on July 23 by Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia NAACP. (On Aug. 20, the executive committee of the local chapter voted to dissolve itself and asked the national office to assume leadership of the branch.)
Rather than convening the roundtable on Zoom, the leaders held the discussion in person while staying 6 feet apart.
Felton moderated the event with Laura Frank, interim director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Pastor Cleveland Edwards of St. Jude Baptist Church said Muhammad had not sufficiently apologized for his posts.
“I know Rodney, I’ve been knowing him for years. He was the one that asked me to run for vice president, and I don’t want to be here betraying him, but he hasn’t gone about it in the right way,” said Edwards, who is the second vice president of the Philadelphia NAACP.
Edwards was the only participant who mentioned Muhammad by name. Others condemned the incident and focused on the broader need for community solidarity in fighting racism and anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Annie Lewis, associate rabbi at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, expressed her community’s grief for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of police violence.
Frank asked the participants if the historic ties between Black and Jewish communities were in danger of slipping away in an increasingly divided society. The leaders were confident this was not the case.
Steven Avinger, senior bishop of Greater St. Matthews Baptist Church, said the groups would always have a kinship due to shared interests as targets of hate.
“We can’t be on the same path, passing each other on that path, without feeling the same pain, without understanding the same depth of struggle,” he said.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff, co-president of the Board of Rabbis, echoed those sentiments.
“You’ve got to feel it in your heart that we share a story, that we share a family, that our families intersect and overlap,” the Adath Israel rabbi said.
Jared Jackson, executive director of Jews in ALL Hues, noted that his very existence spoke to the love between the communities.
“As someone who is both Black and Jewish, I am a product of love,” he said. “And I don’t think that love would have been widely accepted had it not been for millions of people banding together to build coalitions and relationships to tackle differences.”
Frank also asked the participants how the communities could build on the dialogue to strengthen relationships in the future.
Eric Goode, pastor at the People’s Baptist Church, said the communities needed individuals with prophetic imaginations, or the ability to envision a better world.
Felton advocated for a new organization that would bring people of different faiths together to combat systemic racism and anti-Semitism.
“The question is not, ‘Are you a racist?’ The question is, ‘Are you anti-racist? Are you dismantling the structures of racism?’ And to anybody who says, ‘Well I’m not anti-Semitic,’ well, what are you doing to build relationships to strengthen both the Jewish and African American and other communities?” he said.
Jackson and Edwards emphasized the importance of community members learning about each other in order to foster greater understanding.
“We need to find out exactly what our communities look like, what their intersections are, who loves who, and recognize that and honor that,” Jackson said.
Steven Rosenberg, chief operating officer of Jewish Federation, expressed his faith in the strength of the historic ties among Black and Jewish communities.
“I said to Laura [Frank] earlier today that I don’t feel that we need to build bridges,” he said. “The bridges are there, they’re in good repair, I don’t even believe the bridges need to be painted. I think we need to just help each other relocate some of the bridges.”
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