March 21, 2019

Building Bridges Across the Black and Jewish Communities

By Amy Powell

Sabrina Howard and Ariella Gentin both attended high school in the Bronx, N.Y. at schools approximately five miles away from each other.

It was not until they met at Brandeis that they had another surprising realization: Neither had ever sat in class through grade 12 with someone who looked like the other. Howard, who is Black, grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. and attended public schools, graduating from KAPPA (Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy) International High School in 2015. Gentin, who is white, grew up in nearby New Rochelle, N.Y. and attended private Jewish day schools, graduating from SARS Academy (Salanter Akiba Riverdale) in 2016.

Both say their inexperience with the other led them to Brandeis Bridges, a campus group started six years ago with the mission of creating a space for Black and Jewish students to have dialogue and build connections. The centerpiece of the Brandeis Bridges experience is an annual trip that includes visits to Black and Jewish sites. This year, the group will visit Morocco in February. They chose it to get a sense of the culture and history, but also to get away from the paradigms of U.S. race relations.

“We wanted to go where it might look different, where there will be a Jewish community that is not white. That’s a big impetus for us,” said Howard, a senior majoring in Health, Science, Society and Policy and Anthropology and minoring in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality studies. They will visit Casablanca’s famous Hassan II Mosque and the Jewish Heritage Museum, the only Jewish museum in the Arabic-speaking world. Other stops include the Koutoubia Mosque, the iconic sight of Marrakech, the Bahia Palace, a stunning example of traditional Moroccan architecture), the medersas or religious schools, the Jewish quarter, the Souk and more. The itinerary notes that “Morocco’s rich history includes a long period of Arab and Jewish communities accepting their differences and living and working together to bring success to their respective businesses.”

Last year, Gentin and Howard were part of a Bridges cohort that traveled to Chicago. There, they realized that experiencing each other’s culture and heritage could cause them to question their prior understandings. For example, Howard found herself completely unfamiliar with everything during a Shabbat dinner at a private home. She and the other Black students watched while the Jewish students seamlessly fit in even though they had also never met the hosts of the dinner.

The situation flipped when the group attended a Baptist service at a Black church. “That was a comfortable space for me, like being home, like my childhood of going to church with my mom and sisters. It’s a different vibe from synagogue because we are up talking, singing. It’s a lively and animated experience and it was interesting to see how other people reacted,” Howard said.

As the group debriefed after each experience, they struggled. Finding the language to “unpack everything we do” challenged Gentin, a sophomore majoring in politics and Near East and Judaic Studies. “This was a big transition for me in college generally and creating a space to talk about identity is why I made my way to Bridges.” Gentin found it challenging to “explain movements that are not fully egalitarian or not fully consistent with Western values without sounding like an evil person. I learned to adjust what I say about a movement I feel empowered in, that is my lifeline, in a way that is understandable to others.”

Howard agreed that it is hard to find a common language. “I’ve never been asked to explain. People around me knew, had same understandings. Trying to explain it to an outsider allowed me to grow in many different ways. You question yourself and what you know, where you got the information and how clear you are being. You have to develop language to explain to others. You want to avoid speaking for entire population of people, but you want to do the explanation justice while making clear it is your individual perception.”

Gentin, Howard and the 10 Bridges fellows will be joined by Allyson Livingstone, Ph.D, Brandeis’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education, Training, and Development and Alex Kaye, the Karl, Harry, and Helen Stoll Assistant Professor of Israel Studies from the Near East and Judaic Studies Department. Livingstone noted that the experience Gentin and Howard had in high school is not so far from some experiences at Brandeis.

“These students are side by side, they are in parallel worlds and they are not connecting, but it’s not their fault. There are institutional processes that might not fit 2018 that prevent all of us from learning along with each other,” Livingstone said. “I keep hearing from faculty and students — we want to be able to talk to each other about things that make us different, that separate us, but we don’t know how.”

Livingstone said that we lack “explicit dialogic frameworks to have people engage in mutual learning without getting into argument, trying to convince someone of something else, or talking at people.”

That’s why both Livingstone and Kaye welcome the opportunity to learn from each other and from the students as they all strive to reach the important goal “building the community they seek,” Livingstone said.

Kaye joined because of his deep beliefs in the goals of the trip. “Today, perhaps more than ever, it is so important for us to be able to encounter and connect with people who may have different life experiences and ways of thinking. This process requires intellectual openness and emotional bravery. It is also exhilarating, edifying and fun,” Kaye said.

As they approach the February departure date, the group is raising money for the trip. HBI is one of the financial supporters because “it is a wonderful example of inter-religious and inter-racial dialogue led by students at Brandeis. HBI’s mission to support innovative thinking about Jews and gender seeks to support these opportunities to build understanding and to affirm the leadership of young women,” said HBI Director Lisa Fishbayn Joffe.

Kaye noted that, “Today, politics around antisemitism and structural racism in the United States, different ideologies pertaining to the State of Israel and Zionism, and varieties of identity politics more broadly, make it all the more important that we all get to know each other, learn from each other, and listen to each others’ perspectives and life experiences and ultimately collaborate in making a positive difference in contemporary society.”

Gentin noted that ahead of the trip, this year’s student cohort of nine women and one man seems a bit more comfortable than last year’s, maybe because gender is less of an issue.

Howard added, “We all have intersections of our identity and some are more visible and prominent than others.” Without gender being as much of an issue, they may be able to get comfortable more quickly and get to work on other identities, she said.

Ideally, they would prefer more perspectives in the group and hope to bring that in the future, they said.

“It can be emotional when we talk about lived experiences,” said Howard. “I was crying so much — even on the airplane. I didn’t know why I was so emotional, I didn’t have the words. I’m very connected to my identity as a Black woman and as a Black woman, I navigate through this world very differently than people around me.”

Livingstone said the trip fits into her role of helping to support dialogue that makes the Brandeis experience better for everyone involved. She summarized by saying,  “I need you and you need me for this to be a better place. I need to know about your perspective, your life, where you struggle, your strengths to build a really strong community. Then, hopefully we go forth in other social networks and share the experiences.”

Donors can support Brandeis Bridges by clicking here and specifying “Brandeis Bridges” in the text box.

Amy Powell

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

Comments

  1. Donna Halper says:

    First, a well-written and inspiring article. But whenever stories are written about black-Jewish dialogue, what’s often missing is the perspectives of black Jews, and yes there are many people of color in the US who were either born Jewish or converted to Judaism. Their opinions are very important: given that most Jews in the US, and most leaders of Jewish organizations (including most rabbis) are white, it’s crucial for the Jewish community to be more welcoming to Jews of color; and it’s equally important to include them in efforts to improve communication between blacks and Jews (since they are a bridge to both identities).

  2. Esthermiriam says:

    Morroco will be wonderful, but to be meaningful will have to touch on why so few Jews remain there, and complex relation of Morrican Jews to the country their families left as well as to and within Israel.

  3. Hello Cassandra,

    I thought that you would be interested in this article seen you have a degree in black studies.

    Sincerely,
    Russell

  4. Zalel says:

    Pleasant. But irritating with the sameness of its assumptions. It is definitely pleasant, as previously noted, that your group chose a place where many of the Jews are not white-complected. It would have made a much better impression on me, at any rate, had you ventured south of the Atlas, where many Jews are very brown or black. You wrote this article with the predictably disappointing All American Jews Are White Ashkenazim & All American Blacks Are Baptist (Or AME or AME Zion) point of view which is a substantial part of the problem with nearly all the reportage and conversation in this country.

    I have a suggestion. To add some layers to ongoing projects and writing, start digging up Black folk whose community definition is broader than the one you portray here — and get some of the younger ones invited & admitted to Brandeis — and also get Sfaradim who aren’t White. Those are not polarities I grew up with in the middle of Crown Heights and Midwood, nor the polarities of plenty of people I grew up with.

    And, as you try to add depth to your readers’ knowledge, deal with complexities of how Moroccan Jews, and others from the Maghreb, define themselves culturally (which means, if they end up in the US, Europe, or haAretz, how they see themselves racially). Not quite the complexity one can flesh out fully in an article in alum-oriented pubs, but ideas that can be referred to, as leaving them out reinforces some of the presuppositions that all our communities need to walk out of.

  5. Amy and colleagues, In the 1990s I taught courses on Black/Jewish (literary) Women’s Relations at the University of Frankfurt and would be happy to share syllabi, materials, book lists, papers, speeches, etc. I’m sad to note that, from the info in the (admittedly short) blog, much of this rich history seems unknown. I’d also like to mention one course I found particularly satisfying: “Black Jewish Women Writers and their Mothers” (who were also authors … yes, there were already enough to provide for a whole semester of mother/daughter/black/Jewish enjoyment).

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