A recent report in an Amsterdam News article recounts the period in American history when Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Louisiana became academic havens for Jewish scholars as they fled Nazi persecution and lethal antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.
These acts of hospitality and the creation of havens for those persecuted warm my heart and are a source of inspiration in this current period of religious turmoil and struggle. For in this rich history is a wellspring of hope and promise of interfaith, interracial cooperation and collaboration, even in the midst of the ugly specter of hate and violence.
As reported in the article, Jewish scholars who fled Nazism found homes for continued scholarship and academic contributions at HBCUs in Louisiana, others all across America. Even as those filled with hate raged, this community building in the crucible of oppression gave birth to the profound expressions of hope in interfaith and interracial cooperation. These inspiring manifestations of interfaith cooperation and collaboration are borne of values that cherish the humanity in all, that call us to love our neighbor, welcome the stranger, and set a liberty those who are oppressed.
Today, examples of these values, lived across boundaries of religion and race, proliferate across the nation. At Interfaith America, we inspire, equip and connect people to unleash the rich potential of the nation’s religious diversity. (After all, it’s people and relationship-building that forge change.)
People of different faith and no faith create community daily, cultivating years of hope and goodwill, and standing against hate and exclusion.
Personally, I have had the privilege of having a deep friendship with my Jewish siblings, such that Black-Jewish conflict, rabid antisemitism or deeply damaging anti-Blackness are jarring and discordant. One such relationship is with Ruth Messinger, New York City’s 1997 Democratic nominee for mayor, former president of American Jewish World Service, and a leader in the city, state, and nation for decades. When Ruth was Manhattan Borough President, I was her Deputy Borough President. Our commitment to basic values of fundamental human dignity has kept us close as we fight to overcome racial oppression, police brutality, antisemitism, and other forms of religious bigotry.
Recently, Ruth and I shared our mutual journey with a small and diverse group of young staffers at the Interfaith Center of New York. We recounted how we forged a bond by promoting solutions to racial injustice and calling to light harmful vestiges of antisemitism. From supporting an all-civilian police oversight board to addressing police violence in communities of color to calling out anti-Jewish bias in philanthropic institutions, Ruth and I became natural allies in the struggle. We were not and are not alone. We are people formed by our faith in communities of goodwill populated by millions of like-minded and similarly yoked people across the nation.
We can find another example of this type of bridge building in the relationship of Rev. Jacqui Lewis and Rabbi Joshua Stanton. They came to know each other in their respective ministries on the Lower East Side of New York. Rev. Lewis is a dynamic Christian minister in a lively, vibrant and progressive church open to and affirming of all. Rabbi Stanton is an active community rabbi with national influence. He was the face of Reform Judaism when the congregants of the Reformed synagogue in Texas were being held hostage by an extremist. When Rev. Lewis’s church burned to the ground, Rabbi Stanton invited Rev. Lewis and her congregation to worship in the synagogue. With the rise in antisemitism in the country, Rabbi Stanton and Rev. Lewis have stood shoulder to shoulder, sometimes literally, to proclaim the beauty and wonder of American religious diversity and to stand against hate. Rabbi Stanton and Rev. Lewis represent the best of what living in a multi-faith, multiethnic, racially diverse nation looks like.
Consider Adam McKinney, a Black, Jewish choreographer, who grew up attending Orthodox Jewish schools and is now doing research for a new dance performance by uncovering his genealogy on a former plantation in a land where our slave-owning ancestors impregnated our enslaved ancestors and often sold their biracial offspring on the slave auction block. McKinney, who has his Jewish Polish heritage from his mother, in researching the African American side of his family, had to travel south to try to connect to a past his father had long ago left behind. McKinney said in search of the plantation, in searching for land, he found his people; he connected with people. And now he is choreographing a dance that not only integrates his heritage but offers a form of healing through art for a “world overwrought.”
This is a nation where Jewish refugees could find a haven in Black colleges and universities; a world where a Black man born in the segregated South forms a lasting bond with a Jewish woman from New York City to fight racism and antisemitism across the country; a nation where a Christian church finds refuge and a place to worship in a Jewish synagogue; and a nation where a biracial gay choreographer melds his Jewish heritage and his Black American heritage into life-sustaining art. This is a nation where years of creating communities of hope and love will overcome all declarations of days of hate.
These stories represent millions more across the country where people of different faith and no faith create community daily, cultivating years of hope and goodwill, and standing against hate and exclusion. This nation, with all its flaws, past and present, which are legion, represents the world’s first religiously diverse democracy. It is the world’s best hope for people of all faiths and races to pursue and attain their highest ideals. As such, it is a threat to those who cling to narrow religious views and racial bigotry. In the words of IA founder and president Eboo Patel, “We defeat the things we do not love by building the things we do.”