Abraham Heschel

Marchers on Sylvan Street in downtown Selma, Alabama, at the start of the Selma to Montgomery March on March, 21, 1965. The following leaders are on the front row, wearing leis: John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and F. D. Reese. Sylvan Street was later renamed Martin Luther King Street.

February marks Black History Month, and it’s important that Jews pay attention, said Paul Rockower, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix. It’s important to “honor the struggle of the African American community,” he said, and to look back at our own history and connection to the community.

A photograph of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 is often the symbol for the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish Black communities, but the relationship has changed over time.

As part of his work with the JCRC, Rockower works to renew and strengthen ties. The Black community “stood by our side” after the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and Rockower said it’s important that the Jewish community is supporting the non-Jewish Black community in times of crisis as well. “How we get through these difficult times is through community connections and community support,” he said.

There are several events that represent those connections this month, including a free screening Feb. 13 by the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival.

Acknowledging Black History Month is “even more important” this year, said Barry Singer, the festival’s co-executive director, noting the past year of protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

The free festival showing of “Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance” is a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement and the shared history between the Jewish and non-Jewish Black communities, Singer said. The documentary explores historical lessons of African American and Jewish cooperation while fighting bias and racism.

Shari Rogers, the film’s director, told Detroit’s Jewish News in November that it is a critical time for members of the Jewish and non-Jewish Black communities to remember their alliance.

“We need to work together on today’s civil rights issues,” Rogers told the publication, noting the groups worked together to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “The world is watching now in regard to racism, and young Jews especially are asking, ‘How can I help?’ We have a template and a history of a powerful partnership.”

Arizona Jews for Justice launched a “Black and Jewish” dialogue series last week to discuss how the communities can work to achieve justice and equity for each other.

“These communities are deeply alienated from each other,” said Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of AJJ. The purpose of the series, is to help build bridges and “get to know each other.”

Ilana Bruce, who is Black and Jewish, attended the discussion on Feb. 9 and sees it as a good first step in understanding each other’s needs.

She said the anti-Semitism she’s experienced in the Black community, and the racism she’s experienced in the Jewish community are proof that there is a lot of work to be done.

“We have so much common ground that needs to be brought to light,” she said, adding that common ground is not about “the oppression Olympics.”

Rather, she said each group must acknowledge the other’s struggles and decide how, as allies, they can help each other prosper.

The National Council of Jewish Women of Arizona hosted a Black History Month discussion Feb. 10 called “Ending the School to Prison Pipeline,” which was the product of conversations and partnerships that formed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in police custody in May 2020.

NCJWAZ and its event partners, Black Mothers Forum founder Janelle Wood and Joanie Rose, outreach director for Stand Indivisible, chose education as an avenue to begin their work together “because if you do not save the children, then you’re talking about a very bleak future,” said Civia Tamarkin, NCJWAZ president.

Tamarkin, Wood and Rose are now thinking about creating task forces to focus on specific areas of advocacy.

“The discussion was not intended to merely acknowledge Black history,” Tamarkin said, adding that Floyd’s death and the issues around it are a “community problem and tragedy that needed to be addressed, and early in the year so that we could begin to make changes.”

Ultimately, she hopes the NCJWAZ partnerships will bring diverse communities together to work for common goals, including fighting white supremacy.

“We are all facing the same stain on society today and against humanity,” she said. JN

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