Black, Jewish Communities Discuss Effects of Discrimination
WHEELING — At the height of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s, Jewish rabbis marched alongside the black leaders in Selma, Ala., and elsewhere in the south in a show of unity to end discrimination.
Owens Brown, president of the West Virginia NAACP, noted that Jewish people had been enslaved generations ago and were still discriminated against, which encouraged them to back civil rights pioneers, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But the “common cause” that brought the two historically oppressed communities together at the time has seemingly dissipated over the years, Brown said.
“It’s good to try to bring these two groups together again because there has been a split. Not because of any animosity, but the issues we fought together for during the Civil Rights era, a lot of those issues have been resolved,” Brown said. “Right now, we have a common interest, because it’s a frightening time.”
That’s exactly what happened Monday night as dozens of people packed into Temple Shalom in Wheeling to discuss the commonalities between the two minority communities and how to build a lasting relationship moving forward.
The conversation was borne out of a discussion between Rabbi Joshua Lief and Ron Scott Jr., the Wheeling YWCA’s Cultural, Diversity and Community Outreach director, both members of Wheeling’s MLK Celebration committee who wanted to elevate the discourse.
Lief and Scott led the 90-minute discussion about past discrimination and the undercurrent of deep-seated racism and anti-Semitism that remains today.
“What I hope comes across is the shared hardships between black and Jewish communities in the Valley,” Scott said of the discussion.
“I’m not sure we’re that close anymore,” Lief said. “Where can we go from here?”
Lief noted that black people have faced more overt discrimination in America over the years, while anti-Semitism has been more covert. That seems to have changed in recent years, though, as anti-Semitic incidents have increased every year since 2013, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“It’s a myth we’re past that,” Lief said.
As a black man growing up in Wheeling, Scott said he noticed a phase when someone with his skin color went from “a novelty to a threat.”
“There’s a shift,” Scott said. “You don’t know when it happens.”
But he knew exactly when that shift happened for his bi-racial teenage son when he was rebuffed from dating a white girl. However, Scott said he used that as an opportunity for an honest discussion with his son and others in the community.
Lief said he faced similar discrimination when a young girl showed interest in him in the eighth grade, only for her to leave when she realized she couldn’t convert him to Christianity.
“All of us have these experiences,” Lief said. “We have these shared experiences. We’re living our lives as accepted minorities, except when we’re not. We’re natural allies.”
Then Lief pointed to the teachings in the Old Testament and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work as a minister.
This past Sunday, Lief’s congregation taught children the teachings of King and created a colorful paper interlocking chain that was meant to symbolize many different races and cultures.
“The values he preached are Jewish values,” Lief said. “We have a shared system of values.”
Elissa Gross, a member of the Temple Shalom who is participating in Wheeling’s MLK Celebration committee, noted that in addition to the discussion between black and Jewish communities, people of other religious and racial backgrounds attended the discussion, including sisters from Mount St. Joseph.
“It brings out the diversity of our community,” Gross said. “Even though Wheeling is not terribly diverse, it shows the love and support we have here.”
While it often feels like a dark time for a divided country, the two panelists were asked by an audience member what gives them hope.
“I find hope in strange places,” Scott said of his past experiences that showed racial progress. “But now I can find hope in more genuine places.”
Lief echoed the show of support for the Jewish community immediately after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 that left 11 worshipers dead. A service that week brought out hundreds of all faiths to show their unity and support.
“I’m very hopeful to live in a community that is engaged with its neighbors,” Lief said. “Being a small community, we ought to care about our neighbors. And I think we do.”