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Behind the Headlines: Haunting Memories Motivate Jews’ Response to Church Fires

Kenneth Sweder felt the specter of Jewish history weighing heavily over the ruins of the Johnson Grove Baptist Church in Denmark, Tenn.

“When I smelled the acrid stench from the burned churches in Tennessee, it was as if I was smelling the destruction of our own synagogues through the ages,” said Sweder, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

Sweder traveled with an interfaith delegation from Boston just before the July 4 weekend to sites of burned churches in Tennessee and Mississippi.

About 40 churches, most with predominantly black congregations, have burned down during the last 18 months, with arson suspected in most cases.

The epidemic of fires carries a special resonance for Jews haunted by memories of Kristallnacht, when Nazi gangs burned synagogues and vandalized Jewish businesses in 1938 in Germany. Underscoring the parallels to Jewish history, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week in his address to a joint meeting of Congress, “The recent torching of Afro-American churches in America strikes a familiar, chilling note among Jews.”

For some, the torchings also recall the height of the civil rights movement in America, when Jewish synagogues, along with black churches, were targeted in arson attacks and bombings.

During the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, three students — two Jewish, one black – – were killed in Mississippi as they investigated fires at several black churches that had been set to dissuade blacks from voting.

In what has been a trying year for relations between blacks and Jews, the recent spate of church fires has created a sort of psychological kinship between the two communities as Jews have joined efforts to combat racism and rebuild the churches.

In the process, the two communities have made strides toward repairing the traditional black-Jewish alliance. “This has become an opportunity out of a crisis,” said B. Maxwell Stamper, a spokesman for the National Urban League.

Jewish organizations, from major communal groups to local synagogues, have launched fund-raising drives to help rebuild the churches and assist victims in affected communities.

The church fires have also given rise to a number of interfaith, interracial coalitions on both the local and national levels.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Urban League were to present a $100,000 check Wednesday to the Congress of National Black Churches, which represents 65,000 churches.

The check, according to the ADL, is the first distribution of funds collected in response to ads placed jointly by the ADL and Urban League in the New York Times, Washington Post and Atlanta Constitution urging people to speak out against the perpetrators of the church fires and their “acts of hate.”

Some Jews, meanwhile, have become directly involved in rebuilding efforts.

Nineteen black and Jewish teen-agers from the Washington, D.C., area, touring the South as part a program called Operation Understanding, spent July 4 helping to rebuild the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Boligee, a small town in western Alabama.

“I’m actually nailing nails. I’m actually putting something into rebuilding this church,” Ryan Richmond, one of the Operation Understanding participants, said in an interview with The Southern Shofar, a Jewish weekly in Alabama.

“We’ve been going through a period of black-Jewish tensions and often times the news isn’t very good, but I have a sense that Jews hunger for an earlier period when we could march together in common cause,” said Murray Friedman, Middle Atlantic States director of the American Jewish Committee and author of “What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.”

Since the 1960s, blacks and Jews have collided about as often as they have cooperated on issues running the racial gamut, activists from both communities said. The past year has seen tensions flare between the two communities, beginning with differences over the Louis Farrakhan-led Million Man March on Washington in October.

More recently, blacks and some Jewish groups found themselves at odds over voting rights.

When the black community decried the Supreme Court’s recent decisions striking down race-based congressional districts as unconstitutional, some Jewish groups cautiously welcomed the rulings.

Blacks and Jews have had their differences, some of them unbridgeable.

But as Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said, “The differences are not of the magnitude that prevents us from standing together against the greater evil” represented by the church burnings.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, agreed that blacks and Jews could benefit by opposing bigotry and addressing issues of tolerance and pluralism together.

The Jewish expression of solidarity with the black community, Saperstein said, “takes us a step back from some of the more controversial issues that have caused tensions, and returns our attention to the fundamental issues at stake in the great struggle for civil rights in America.”

That sentiment was echoed by Stamper of the Urban League, who said that in recent weeks “the spirit of the civil rights movement in which Jews and African Americans were both long-distance runners was brought together again.”

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown of Boston’s Union Baptist Church, who took part in the interfaith trip to Tennessee and Mississippi, said cooperation against church arson has already proved a “galvanizing event” in black-Jewish relations.

Through their response, he said, Jews have communicated to the black community “that we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, that what affects you affects us, that any violation of community will affect us all.”

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