The relationship between African-Americans and American Jews has encompassed both collaboration and conflict. The Unity Project, a new Jewish Community Center (JCC) initiative to build bridges between these communities and explore shared history, aims to create a space that cultivates dialogue and understanding.
“We are not talking about building tolerance; we should be way beyond different people tolerating each other. We are talking about building understanding,” said Lev Rothenberg, director of arts and education with the JCC. “There is so much more that we have in common than what separates us. There are many people who feel that way, but those are not the people we often hear about. The mission of the Unity Project is to build respect between the African-American community and the Jewish community using the arts and dialogue.”
The Unity Project got its start after the JCC hosted a screening of the film “Rosenwald,” which tells the story of a Jewish philanthropist who worked with Booker T. Washington to develop schools for Black children during the Jim Crow era. The community’s response to the film was so strong that the JCC felt the need to keep the momentum going. Upcoming events include a screening of a documentary about HBCU students living in Israel and a book discussion with Ben Winters, author of Underground Airlines, a book that explores what America might be like if the Civil War never happened and slavery was still legal.
Rothenberg hopes that by remembering the past and having conversations with people from different walks of life, American Jews and African-Americans will find ways to work together in the future.
“There is a history of Jewish people and Black people working together. The best-known rabbi of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel, walked hand-in-hand with MLK, but a divide has grown between our communities,” said Rothenberg. “Our goal is to give people an opportunity to get together and discuss things together. That way we will not just look at someone else as the other group.”
Rothenberg says the success of this project is dependent on people coming out and taking part in these events.
“This is an ongoing program that is not only open to the entire community, but the success of the program is based on the entire community. We want people to come out and share their thoughts, ideas and experiences with each other.”
“Taking Israel: A Journey of African-American Students” is the next event facilitated by The Unity Project. The film tells the story of African-American students from historically Black colleges as they recount their experience of living in Israel. The event includes a screening of the film and a panel discussion and question-and-answer session with the film’s producer. This event takes place on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. in the Laikin Auditorium of the JCC.
For more information, visit jccindy.org or call (317) 251-9467.