This week marked the start of Black History Month, an opportunity for Jews to honor and reflect on our special relationship with Black communities and to actively work to strengthen our kinship at a critical moment in our collective history.
To mark the occasion, Jewish communities across the country often cite the familiar story of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Rep. John Lewis in the third Selma civil rights march. Dozens of rabbis throughout the country joined Heschel in the Jewish cause for racial equality, including a handful of rabbis in the South.
But many Southern Jews feared that their participation would trigger a hostile backlash among anti-Semites. Heschel, who observed the violence directed at Jews and synagogues that participated in the movement, proclaimed, “The problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one’s own tradition with reverence for different traditions.”
I see this “problem” as more of an opportunity, one that I hope to spend much of my time as the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council working to address. Since joining the Jewish Federation in 2017, after stints in local political and public relations work, I’ve seen firsthand how imperative the role of the JCRC is in building an equitable society in which Jews and other minorities are secure, free to flourish and supportive of one another’s goals — and shared humanity.
When asked about the role of the JCRC, I like to refer to it as the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federation. Our outreach is both internal and external: We bring our Jewish community together around common causes and we advocate for those causes by building relationships with elected officials, interfaith religious leaders and community activists.
Throughout its history, the JCRC has been instrumental in organizing on behalf of a wide array of causes, including Philadelphia’s rallies in support of Israel, Soviet Jewry advocacy, Holocaust remembrance activities, vigils in response to anti-Semitic violence and vandalism, and missions to Israel for Pennsylvania political leaders and non-Jewish clergy.
JCRC’s core mission is to combat anti-Semitism in every way possible. With a significant rise in hatred toward Jews and other minorities in recent years, we have relied on our community relations to build coalitions to fight back against BDS and other anti-Zionist efforts on college campuses and in the halls of our government. We have worked with our local partners to soundly reject white nationalist movements and have pledged to do the hard work of dismantling systemic racism in our society, and in our own communities. But, to effectively eradicate a thousand-year-old hatred like anti-Semitism, we must work urgently and proactively, and in collaboration with community partners.
JCRC’s interfaith and intergroup relationships allow us to cut this prejudice off at the source. Anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of hate are nurtured ideologies, and they spread all the more rapidly when not confronted by a coalition committed to destroying them. In many cases, these ideologies and biases are spread due to a simple lack of exposure or interaction with Jews and other minority groups.
Working in partnership on issues of common concern with religious leaders and elected officials in other minority communities is an incredibly important way to make these introductions and build new relationships. But, as we see in our Jewish communities, more and more of our neighbors are becoming less affiliated with any kind of institution, religious, political or otherwise. Reaching these people is vitally important to advance the mission of the JCRC, but doing so won’t be easy. It will require commitment, resolve, and intentional engagement.
The next phase of our intergroup outreach will require us to take up seats at unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming tables. It will require speaking with and connecting with communities where it may seem difficult to find common cause. It will entail meeting with people who may believe the worst of us, or don’t trust us, or don’t want us there at all. Facing this work is daunting, but it is also exciting and has the potential to be transformative, both on the individual and community levels.
During my time at JCRC, I have experienced the power of these connections firsthand. I genuinely believe it’s possible that a single conversation can, in fact, change hearts and minds. Paired with organizing and community building, it can be a gamechanger.
We know that bridges of understanding do not fall from the sky or rise from the ground. They are built by engaging in dialogue, forming a relationship and engaging in joint advocacy work.
As the poet and historian Aberjhani once said, “Individual cultures and ideologies have their appropriate uses, but none of them erase or replace the universal experiences, like love and weeping and laughter, common to all human beings.” This is something I intend to carry with me throughout my work as the JCRC’s director. And I welcome all Exponent readers to join me and the JCRC in this critically important work.
Laura Frank is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.