Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Behind the Headlines: Common Concerns Bringing Together Jews and an Array of Ethnic Groups

March 28, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

When Stephanie Gurwitz became director of the Rhode Island Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council five years ago, she never imagined she would be working to defend the rights of Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia.

But when the Rhode Island state coroner performed an autopsy on a dead Hmong man against his family’s wishes in 1987, the CRC joined the Hmong community, the American Jewish Congress and the American Civil Liberties Union in supporting a suit against the state asserting a violation of the family’s civil rights.

The CRC’s interest was twofold: It was generally concerned about the violation of an ethnic minority’s civil rights, and it was specifically concerned because traditional Jewish observance prohibits autopsy in most circumstances.

The Providence coalition won the court case. But the victory was shortlived.

After the Supreme Court ruled last June that states need not prove a compelling state interest before infringing on certain religious liberties, the federal district court judge who heard the Providence group’s case took the unusual step of reversing his earlier ruling.

Tackling the problem another way, Gurwitz and the ACLU, along with Hmong, black and Jewish groups, successfully lobbied last year for a state law prohibiting autopsy against a family’s wishes except under certain circumstances.

Providence is one of many illustrations that Jewish community relations professionals and religious leaders across the country are living out Shakespeare’s truism “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” as they forge relationships with ethnic and religious groups that would have been unlikely, even impossible, a short time ago.


While coalition-building has always been a strategy used by American Jewish organizations, new groups, most notably Asians and Hispanics, as well as Moslems in some areas, are emerging as important partners.

Joint action on such local issues as municipal budget cuts and intergroup tensions presents a stronger, united front to protect minority interests and is “becoming a necessity rather than stylish,” said David Nussbaum, executive director of the Flint (Mich.) Jewish Federation and executive vice president of its social service agency, Jewish Social Services of Flint Inc.

Citizens in Flint are facing 17 percent across-the-board cuts in city spending; $40 million has been cut from the welfare budget alone.

“It will affect the federation campaign and Jewish Social Services, which will face more demand (for services) from Jews and non-Jews. And it drives up the need for private dollars as public resources dry up,” Nussbaum said.

Flint’s crisis has galvanized groups which in other times viewed one another with suspicion.

“Native Americans, Hispanics, even the business community has gotten involved, suddenly realizing it’s not just the liberal bed wetters who are getting hurt,” Nussbaum explained.

“It has broken down some of the insular behavior of some of the ethnic groups when they understand that this crisis is too big to deal with by themselves.”

In New York, perhaps the most diverse and complicated community relations mosaic in the country, black-Jewish cooperative efforts have paid off for both groups.


When Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, was planning to come to New York last summer after being released from three decades of imprisonment, the city’s black community was jubilant.

But American Jewish leaders, national and local, had doubts about supporting the visit. While Mandela’s importance as a symbol of freedom and hope was clear, the ANC’s backing of the Palestine Liberation Organization made it difficult for many American Jews to support him openly.

Just before the trip to the United States, a group of Jewish leaders met with Mandela in Geneva, where they had the chance to share concerns and points of view.

Had the Geneva meeting not occurred, there would been a demonstration against Mandela, which would have undoubtedly created more friction between New York’s blacks and Jews, said Michael Miller, executive director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council.

“Many people view coalitions as compromises for the Jewish community,” said Miller. “One does not compromise principles; one accommodates for the sake of moving the community forward.”

Many successful connections between blacks and Jews are made through interreligious efforts.

A long-running Jewish Theological Seminary program called the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies brings Conservative rabbis together with leaders from black and Hispanic churches in Harlem and the Bronx. Along with representatives of Orthodox and Quaker churches, they engage in theological discussion.

The friendships that form from these Tuesday breakfasts are valued even after participants leave the grounds of the Conservative seminary.

“It’s extremely important in this metropolitan area with so many ethnic tensions,” said Rev. Carl Flemister, chair of the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York and chair of the JTS institute’s breakfast discussions.

“We get invited to preach in each others’ churches and synagogues, to participate in community programs,” he said.


Interreligious coalitions can create interesting paradoxes, as in the case in Orange County, Calif., where there is a large community of Evangelical Christians.

While the Jewish community finds itself working against attempts by the “born again” groups to change public school curricula and defeat city resolutions relating to the civil rights of gays and lesbians, it does cooperate with the staunchly pro-Israel Christian groups on Israel-related issues.

One cooperative effort is called “Orange County Loves Israel,” an annual festival celebrating the Jewish state.

“The difficulty is getting other mainline church leaders to join us because of how they feel about Evangelicals, not Israel,” according to Chelle Friedman, director of community and public relations for the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Recommended from JTA