Bridging the black-Jewish gap

For 16 Penn undergraduate students, the much-discussed gulf between blacks and Jews narrowed to a bridgeable stream this year, thanks to a new program, "Alliance and Understanding," developed by Afi Roberson, staff assistant at the African American Resource Center.

After meeting each other for the first time last September, the students spent this year discussing essays and books on black-Jewish relations and exchanging their own views on the subject. The program's high point: a week-long "alternate spring break" trip to New York to the Jewish Heritage Museum, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Crown Heights, among other sites.

To the surprise of some, the groups had much in common. On a visit to Crown Heights, for example, Black Student League chair Rasoul Berry (C'99) noticed that "both [black and Hasidic] groups targeted the media" rather than intergroup tensions as the driving force behind the violence that racked the community a few years ago.

Tamara Walker (C'00) noted that "the division that exists within the Jewish community is almost a reflection of the divisions that exist within the African-American community, and we found that those differences have to be reconciled before we can interact with one another."

Walker's participation in the group -- she was, by her own description, the only black participant who was not a Christian -- also brought out the ties between religion and culture that run through both communities. Yehuda Potok (C'99) said, "Eventually, I realized that there was more to the Christianity of a lot of the group members than I was seeing to begin with. There was this sense of peoplehood that was akin to Judaism, a sense of the spirit that exists in Afro-American culture."

Potok was impressed by the Afrocentric day school the group visited in Crown Heights. As the product of yeshiva schools, Potok was thoroughly immersed in Jewish culture, and "to see the parallel in the African American community, to see the way these kids were immersed in their own culture, was wonderful, and I thought it was a great way to get these kids to really know who they are and where they come from."

The trip offered participants a chance to get "out of our comfort zone" (as Walker put it) and form close personal relationships with people of different backgrounds. Hillel executive board member Ben Schein (C'99) felt that this was the biggest contribution the group could make to the larger campus community as a whole: "It's 16 more people who have a better understanding about what it means to be different," he said.

"Every year we do this, it's 16 more people, and 16 more, and 16, and 16..."

The participants in this year's program will multiply by serving as advisors and facilitators for the next group of participants, who will be chosen in the fall. And Roberson also hopes to multiply the Alliance and Understanding project itself when she, Hillel Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow Melinda Pollack and Greenfield Intercultural Center Assistant Director Karlene Burrell travel to San Diego to speak before the Leadership Alliance for Excellence in Education during its national conference April 29-May 2.

Originally published on April 16, 1998