by Rabbi Evan Schultz, August 2017/Av-Elul 5777
Pastor Anthony Bennett of Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport joined us this past January for the Shabbat preceding Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Those of you who attended his sermon during Shabbat services and our discussion with him over dinner may remember that the conversation prompted a range of feelings for our congregants. Some B’nai Israel members found his words uplifting, powerful, and speaking to truth, while others shared with me afterwards that they left feeling uncomfortable, frustrated, and challenged.
Pastor Bennett challenged some of our longstanding understandings of Black-Jewish relations in America. When one congregant referenced Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King on Selma, Pastor Bennett pushed back on the idea that Jews and Blacks have an intertwined civil rights struggle here in America. He challenged us that we as a Jewish community have not taken the time to immerse ourselves in African-American history and fully acknowledge their unique experience, and that in his eyes our struggles as Jews are not the same as those of the Black community in America.
At the end of the evening Pastor Bennett left us with a challenge: He asked that we make time in our community to talk about the Black experience in America more than once a year on MLK day, when we often bring in a local African-American pastor to speak with our community on Shabbat. With all the issues surrounding race in America, we have decided the time is now to take up Pastor Bennett on his challenge.
In partnership with CONECT (Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut), we, along with several other local Jewish congregations (Temple Israel in Westport, Mishkan Israel in Hamden) will be hosting a series of films and book readings that will give us an opportunity to learn more about the Black experience in America and talk more seriously about race on an ongoing basis. The idea behind these gatherings is to have internal conversations in our community about how we as Jews think about and grapple with race in America. We see this is as a first step of educating ourselves and engaging with race. We do certainly hope as a next step to set up opportunities for dialogue with some of the local African-American congregations, but as Pastor Bennett prompted us, this needs to be the first step on that journey.
The first film we are going to watch is the 2013 Tim Wise documentary White Like Me. We will join together on Saturday, September 9, from 4-6 p.m. for a showing of the film, discussion, and a concluding Havdalah ritual. We will then together read The Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, to gather for a discussion in November (date TBA). We hope you’ll join us for these important conversations over the course of the coming year. Please email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, with any thoughts, questions, ideas, or hopes for these discussions.