On a recent Wednesday evening, Reform rabbinical students Michael Moskowitz and Josh Bennett were busy at the Anointed Word Evangelistic Tabernacle Church of God in Christ here, teaching the gospel choir the Hebrew song “Oseh Shalom” or “Maker of Peace.”
Bennett and Moskowitz had come to Atlanta from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to participate in a meeting of 19 rabbinical students and 21 black Protestant and Pentecostal seminary students held at the Interdenominational Theological Center.
ITC is a campus of six seminaries, each from a different denomination, and part of the Atlanta University confederation of historically black institutions of higher education, which includes Morehouse and Spelman Colleges.
This meeting, the third in nine years convened by the American Jewish Committee and ITC, was held November 17-19, and included Jewish students from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the Reform movement’s two campuses, in Cincinnati and New York, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
One of the ITC students, Rosalind Gross, is a member of the Anointed Word Evangelistic Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. During a break from the conference one evening, she brought Moskowitz and Bennett to hear her church choir practice, where they taught the gospel singers one of liberal Judaism’s best-loved songs.
Friendships like these were quickly formed between the Christian and Jewish students, and cemented as the religious leaders-in-training moved past superficial niceties and began addressing the more difficult issues percolating just below the surface of the nascent relationship.
Their informal, frank and often visceral discussions over the strictly kosher meals and in small groups afterward, revealed that potentially dangerous misinformation about Jews is widely accepted in the African-American community.
The African-American students also made clear that they expect the Jewish community to be more active on behalf of economic and social justice issues.
Most of the ITC students came to the conference without having known any Jews, and were completely unaware of Jewish fears and sensitivities.
Jews, in their view, were simply the most successful segment within the white establishment, and in control of America’s economic and political systems – the very systems from which they feel shut out.
Then they heard from the rabbinical students about how vulnerable Jews feel in America, and how tenuous Jews feel their about their acceptance by the largely Christian establishment in this country.
“Black folks would be amazed to see your insecurities,” said Mack Frank, a Baptist seminary student. “Your willingness to be open is the most encouraging thing I’ve ever seen. Now if we can just learn to communicate.”
The Jewish students learned, for the first time, how seriously the ITC students take black scholarship that concludes that Jesus, his contemporaries and their biblical ancestors were black.
The rabbinical students also discovered how upset their counterparts were that Jewish seminaries don’t offer courses about black experience and culture.
Participants also learned about the things they share.
Two female students, Lina Zerbarini of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Ethel Jefferson of the United Methodist seminary, found themselves deep in conversation about the frustration of being religious leaders in communities with strongly patriarchal traditions and tendencies.
David Simon, a Conservative rabbinical student, and Jimelvia Pettiford, a United Methodist seminarian, had a long talk about being raised in religiously uncommitted homes and discovering their own religious identities as adults.
Jews and black Christians learned that they share some of the same concerns for their communities over assimilation and over the pursuit of “the American dream,” which tends to supplant their communities’ religious and cultural ideals.
“I didn’t know any Jews and said things about Jews that I just knew by rumor,” said Charles Evans, a student at the United Methodist seminary. “Now I discovered the commonalities we have.”
The students pledged to continue the dialogue they had gotten a chance to begin, and promised to put it to constructive use. A joint application to a foundation for funding to meet again is planned, as is a journal of scholarship on issues of common concern.
One topic discussed for the first issue of the journal was an exploration of how Jews and blacks relate their historical memories of enslavement. There was also a hopeful discussion of a joint trip to Israel, Eastern Europe and Africa.
But the first exploratory experiences were local – a synagogue service and a church service and a visit to the premiere of the movie Malcolm X at a fund- raiser for Morehouse College.
Toward the end of the conference Rosalind Gross, the Church of God in Christ seminary student, told a visitor that meeting her Jewish colleagues had also helped her connect to her own family history, since her father’s father was a Jew.
She had grown up surrounded by relics of her grandfather’s Jewishness, like the mezuzah on her family’s front doorframe, and had never known what any of them meant.
She said she felt a particular connection to the tallit, the prayer shawl that most of the Jewish students wore during a morning synagogue service that they ran at The Temple, Atlanta’s historic Reform congregation.
“I was wondering how it would look in kente cloth,” Gross mused, referring to the African cloth exploding in popularity as black Americans reclaim the symbols of their heritage.
The hugs and kisses as the Jewish students left for the airport to return to their seminaries were warm and sincere, as was the “Shechechiyanu,” the prayer of thanks to God that the Jewish students offered, and the rendition of “We Shall Overcome” that black students initiated as the participants joined hands.
But there remains mutual suspicion and ignorance to be overcome as the relationship matures for these 39 seminarians.
As Nechama Goldberg, a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said: “We’re two communities so attuned to listening to those footsteps behind us and fearing the worst that when someone puts a hand on our shoulders in friendship, sometimes it’s hard to receive.”