Newark’s Congregation Ahavas Sholom marked the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday with a keynote address Sunday on King and Heschel by Rabbi Capers Funnye, who has become the nation’s most prominent African-American rabbi in part thanks to the fact that he’s Michelle Obama’s first cousin, once-removed.
But it’s not just the Obama connection that distinguishes Funnye: Among the black Jewish leaders of the Hebrew Israelite movement, Funnye has been the most prominent in building a bridge between his movement and Judaism’s white mainstream.
Sunday’s event stood at the juncture between two worlds, and maybe more. Ahavas Sholom is Newark’s last functioning synagogue, after its one mighty Jewish population migrated and then fled west from the 1950s on.
Congregants, nearly all of whom commute from the suburbs, are driven to keep at least one small ember of the city’s fabled Jewish community burning, and to build connections between two communities – black and Jewish — strictly segregated by geography and socio-economics.
All of which makes for fascinating optics: A bimah at which sat Newark’s black power-brokers, including City Council President Donald Payne Jr., former council presdient Mildred Crump, and the veteran lawyer and civil rights activist Junius Williams. The big crowd, meanwhile, which spilled over into the Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church next door, was a mix of older white suburbanites, Ahavas Sholom’s own diverse congregation, and black church-goers from the city.
Funnye himself preached in the cadences of the black church, quoting both Heschel and King, working himself into a sweat and allowing his voice to swing from a low quiet baritone to a shout. At the climax, he repeated the phrase “What would Martin say,” and listed contemporary evils like anti-Semitism, Islamic terror, Islamophobia, the suffering in Haiti.
”We must become one people for truth, for justice, for righteousness, for all people,” he said, before reciting the Priestly Blessing in Hebrew and English.
Blacks in the audience responded with “Yes,” and “Amen,” and emphatic “Uh-huhs.” The Jews applauded politely. Folks sitting behind me were themselves black Jews, reciting the Hebrew along with Rabbi Funnye.
It was beautiful stuff, and world’s removed from the typical sermon in the typical synagogue, and an easy mixing of black and Jews you’ll see in no other house of worship or — well, almost anywhere, actually. Just like the Ahavas Sholom project itself, it was beautiful and a little sad, highlighting the absence of the very thing it sought to celebrate.
Yes, the Jewish community is becoming more diverse, thanks to conversion, adoptions, and mixed marriages, among other things. Funnye himself is a principal at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, the late Gary Tobin’s effort to promote diversity within Jewish life. And there are a number of Jews who remain deeply invested in Newark, working in the schools, at the universities, in politics, and community organizing.
But many at the event acknowledged the deep divide between city and suburb. In the panel discussion that followed Funnye’s remarks, Cornell Brooks of the NJ Institute for Social Justice noted that NJ is among the most segregated states in the country, and spoke of the social costs when people “don’t live near one another, don’t shop at the same grocery stores, or send their kids to the same schools.” Absent these interactions, he said, “opportunities for ethical and moral dialogue are diminished.” We forget “the degree to which we are indebted to one another.”
Rutgers historian Clement Price also spoke about the “racially Balkanized” state, and “the policies intended to separate us. We’re paying dearly for that now.”
Sunday wasn’t a day for discussing political solutions, but Price did speak of one way blacks and Jews can reach across the chasm. Earlier in the program, Payne talked about swimming at the High Street YMHA as a kid. “We need to keep our memories alive. Earlier Donald Payne spoke about swimming in a Jewish space,” said Price. “We need to remember a time when this city was cross-fertilized in it public schools , when its communities were remarkably safe and sound.” He remembered Newark as a “strivers’ row, where everybody was trying to move up.” Price proposed the appointment of a Deputy Mayor of Memory, who would be in charge of recalling this “cacophony of people “and fight the “amnesia.”