On May 1 inside the Capitol Media Center in Harrisburg, a group of Jewish and Black representatives walked onto the stage. They lined up in a row and stood behind the podium as their leaders, Rep. Jared Solomon and then Rep. Jordan Harris, stepped forward to speak.
Solomon, who is Jewish and represents the 202nd district in Philadelphia County, and Harris, who is Black and represents the 186th district, also in Philadelphia County, were introducing the new Black-Jewish Caucus in the PA General Assembly. They pledged to build a relationship, work together to combat antisemitism and racism and collaborate on legislative issues.
But about 18 minutes into the press conference, the camera panned out over the audience in the room. It was mostly empty, save for four people sitting in chairs and two more standing with cameras. There was only one reporter in the room asking questions, and he led with the obvious one.
“We heard a lot about conversations. I’m just wondering in terms of what this caucus can do to back each other’s priorities,” he said.
“I think that legislative priorities, legislative victories, begin with relationship building,” Solomon answered.
For now, as Solomon repeated afterward, that’s the goal.
“It’s reestablishing the importance of the relationship,” he said.
According to Solomon, the Black-Jewish alliance hit its high point during the civil rights movement. But since then, it has not been the same “organized, coordinated, comprehensive, growing majority that builds relationships, handles issues and speaks authoritatively,” he said.
“What we need to do is make this relationship relevant to the new generation of Blacks and Jews in our communities,” Solomon explained. “Jordan and I want to model this type of behavior. We are friends.”
“Friendships are about give and take,” Harris added.
Solomon, Harris and 10 of their General Assembly colleagues — eight Black members and four Jewish members — attended the press conference and modeled the type of relationship building they hope to spread. Rep. Ben Waxman, who represents the 182nd district, based in Center City, was one of the Jewish leaders present.
All 12 attendees, as Solomon joked during the press conference, are Democrats, though the invitation is open to Republicans to join. None of them could attend on May 1 due to scheduling conflicts, according to Solomon. David Edman, the co-founder of Alliance of Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit that seeks to build relationships between the Jewish and Black communities, also attended and spoke.
Five years ago, Edman met Harris and told him about Congregation Temple Beth’El, a Black synagogue in Philadelphia. Harris and Solomon then attended a Shabbat service there together.
“And that kind of planted the seeds,” Edman said.
But it remains unclear what those seeds will sprout into as the caucus starts to meet. According to Solomon, relationship building must lead to both groups standing up during instances of antisemitism or racism. After that, they can stand together on different pieces of legislation.
“What makes sense for us to do? Is it gun violence? Is it housing? I’m not sure,” Solomon said. “But both Jordan and I have a sense of how to get there.”
During the press conference, Waxman stepped forward and explained that in recent years PA has increased security grant funding for nonprofits. The program has benefited both Jewish and Black institutions, and that’s one example of an issue on which the caucus could stand together.
Rep. Dan Frankel, whose district includes Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where the Tree of Life synagogue shooting unfolded almost five years ago, also stepped forward to mention a package of bills, introduced at the end of April, that would update the state’s hate crimes statute to include protections for additional groups, like people with disabilities, and training for law enforcement officers, among other measures. Frankel and Napoleon Nelson, a Black representative who was at the press conference, introduced the package.
“I was there at the Tree of Life synagogue. I took a tour of the Tree of Life synagogue. I heard the stories. I saw the pain in the eyes of my colleagues who were with me who were of the Jewish faith,” Harris said. “I also know they see the pain in my eyes when we talk to mothers who are losing their sons and daughters in the streets of Philadelphia to gun violence.”