Rabbi Noam Marans explains the essence of AJC leadership in African American -- Jewish American relations

Keynote Address - Rabbi Noam Marans
AJC Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations

AJC Philadelphia/Southern NJ
2012 Community Leadership Award Dinner
Honoring Rev. Dr. Lorina L. Marshall-Blake

May 16, 2012

The day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated was the day I first learned about our great American hero. The radio was blaring rock n’ roll in my pre-adolescent room. The deejay broke in as the horrible news came across the wires. As a nine-year-old, I wasn’t particularly paying attention, but my father, a Conservative rabbi, overheard and came into my room ashen-faced. It was a seminal moment of my childhood. Ten days earlier my father was present when Dr. King addressed the Rabbinical Assembly convention. At that gathering, the legendary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel introduced Dr. King in what became his final address to the Jewish community. Rabbi Heschel and Rev. King were dear friends, a friendship indelibly memorialized when the rabbi marched with Rev. King in the front row of a Selma march. That photo of the two religious leaders is one of the most recognizable photos in American Jewish history and black-Jewish relations.

Thus began a life-long journey consumed with all things “King,” from a middle school book report to a life of preaching peppered with Martin Luther King quotes. There is no acceptable equating of the African American experience with any other. But there is a natural affinity between the Jewish and African American stories. Both our communities understand persecution first-hand and comprehend well how dehumanization can lead to physical threat and even to enslavement and genocide. It is not an accident that Dr. King and others adopted the Jewish story of the Exodus as an appropriate metaphor for the civil rights movement here in the United States. Just a few weeks ago, I led a Passover seder for several hundred Jews in northeast Georgia, in which we sang “Go Down Moses” as a resonant contemporary rendition that echoed the Exodus experience of “Let my people go.”

Beginning in 1985, I served for sixteen years as a congregational rabbi in Ridgewood, NJ. Well into the 1950s Ridgewood was a restricted community, where first explicitly, and later implicitly, African Americans, Jews and other undesirables were denied the right to purchase homes either at all, or in specific neighborhoods. But in the 1980s, together with Christian clergy of all colors, we made the newly founded annual Martin Luther King Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day interfaith services and commemorations the bedrock of that once-restricted community.

Just a month ago, it all came full circle. On April 12, I was admitted into the Board of Preachers of the Martin Luther King International Chapel at Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater, and no doubt the alma mater of some of you here this evening. At the annual induction this year, 39 clergy were honored: 37 of the 39 were African-American, and, of the two whites, only one was a rabbi. I held back tears as the 39 of us clasped hands “civil-rights” style and swayed as the famed Morehouse College Glee Club sang the school’s song.

I tell you all of this to put AJC’s commitment to the betterment of our shared America into a wider context. Jews played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. Among the activists were Rabbi Heschel who famously said that “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying,” and the young American Jews, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were murdered with African-American James Chaney, as they travelled to Mississippi to help with voter registration in 1964. It was more than the personal commitment of a few, including those who were beaten or gave their lives. It was a Jewish communal priority. When the Supreme Court issued its 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending segregation in public schools, Chief Justice Warren cited AJC’s study of segregation’s effect on African American children. And throughout those dark days of American history, AJC issued ground-breaking studies on the state of race relations in the United States, urged our legislators to change this country’s unjust laws and marched in the many gatherings throughout the country, particularly in the South and in Washington, DC. When Martin Luther King received AJC’s American Liberties Medallion in 1965, Joseph Proskauer, an AJC past president, introduced him saying: “He is a modern Moses and the modern Pharaohs must give way.”

So, why does AJC lead in this way? Why does AJC do what it does? Why does AJC have a long history of commitment to these and other causes? I offer three reasons for your consideration:

First, it is simply the right thing to do. If you believe that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that we have a responsibility to love our neighbor the way we would want to be loved, then we cannot stand by idly, as our brothers’ and sisters’ blood is spilled, either literally or figuratively. Simply put, our Jewish and human values compel us to act.

Second, an America for all Americans is only as strong as those who are at risk in every generation: whether it was Jews who suffered from the American anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s in the likes of Father Coughlin or Henry Ford; or African-Americans who struggle and continue to struggle mightily, wanting only to be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin; or today’s Latino Americans who are targeted by those who might stereotype them in their xenophobic desire to deny our newest immigrants opportunity.

Third, American Jews have long shared political and social goals with other hyphenated Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and others. But we also have some specific Jewish communal goals for which we turn to others for support. And we welcome the requests of our fellow Americans for support of their priorities. At the core of the American political and social experience is the understanding that people of different expressions – racial, ethnic, religious – can help one another achieve that which is either mutually beneficial or important to a particular group. In short, we can help one another achieve our mutual and more independent goals.

You may have noticed that my title is director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations. It is a relatively new title that combines AJC’s historic interreligious affairs work with the work of its Belfer Center for American Pluralism, AJC’s institute that focuses on interethnic and intergroup outreach. This merger of interfaith and interethnic is particularly on target and poignant in the relationship between blacks and Jews in the United States. Our shared prophetic tradition enables each of our communities to view its religious and ethnic identities as inseparable. We Jews call that peoplehood. Similarly, it is well-known that the African-American community has built its sense of identity around the historic black churches and their political activism, and more recently around other religious institutions, including mosques. Although there are many secular Jews in the United States, there is always a significant religious motivation, implicit or explicit, energizing Jewish social activism. African Americans and Jewish Americans have learned to speak to power with a voice of prophetic truth. Additionally, our homes and our religious experiences have allowed us to find comfort among our respective peoples during moments of personal or communal suffering. Neither of our communities is ever too far from its religious roots, which celebrate family and demand justice for all.

Now it’s not like there aren’t challenges in the African American-Jewish American relationship. It is fair to say that the intensity and intimacy of the relationship has gone through ebbs and flows. The 1950’s and 60’s were the heyday of the relationship, but the last decades of the twentieth century were more challenging with some notable disagreements and even confrontations. It seems to be taking on a new energy of late, but it’s different than it once was. The African American-Jewish women’s dialogue that is gaining strength here in Philadelphia is emblematic of a renewable and stronger approach. Blacks and Jews are increasingly meeting each other in social and work environments and developing relationships that were not feasible for their parents and grandparents. Young Jews are less inhibited in crossing lines and developing relationships that were harder for their parents and grandparents. The new adults of both communities meet each other in the neighborhood, at work, in the armed forces, at school. If in the past the relationship was characterized more by leaders to leaders, today one might say that the extraordinary is becoming ordinary.

We have to harness that energy and find a way to come together in the future around the issues that bind us: fighting discrimination in all its forms; protecting the rights of all Americans; strengthening public education; and eradicating poverty in our midst.

At our core, we share a desire to live within communities that are safe and supportive. I think it is here where our honoree, the Rev. Dr. Lorina L. Marshall-Blake, has most clearly role-modeled a good way, in her commitment to improving the quality of life of Philadelphians and to making a difference in the community. The improvement of our cities where we live or lived, where we work and where we add meaning to our cultural lives, is essential for African Americans and Jews.

I hope this evening is not just recognition by AJC of a job well-done, but also an optimistic note of remembering our past so that we can build a better future together. I can’t think of a better place for that sentiment than in Philadelphia - the city of brotherly (and sisterly) love, the birthplace of freedom - with its historic Jewish and African American communities.

Thank you for this opportunity.