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Singing the BLEWS

The Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore Celebrates 25 Years of Promoting Harmony Between the African-American and Jewish Communities

By Jill Yesko | Posted 11/19/2003

When President Jimmy Carter called for the resignation of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young for secretly meeting with Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat in 1978--an act that enraged many leaders of the African-American community at the time--tensions between African-Americans and Jews were already running high. Israel was one of the few Middle Eastern nations to maintain cordial relations with South Africa during its years of apartheid, affirmative action had recently emerged as a divisive issue, and the political pulse of the nation was already shifting toward the conservatism that would define the Reagan years. The next two decades brought racially charged public psychodramas such as the Tawana Brawley incident, riots between African-Americans and Orthodox Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., Jesse Jackson's proclamation that New York was "Hymietown," and the headline-grabbing quote by the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan labeling Hitler a "wickedly great" man. For many African-Americans and Jews, the arm-in-arm alliances of the civil-rights era seemed a very distant memory.

Although 1978 wasn't a banner year for African-American/Jewish relations, it did mark the founding of Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore, aka BLEWS, an organization of African-Americans and Jews dedicated to promoting better understanding, communication, and educational intervention between the two groups.

"In the post-civil rights decade, African-Americans and Jews still had good relations with each other," says founding member Murray Saltzman, rabbi emeritus of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. "We wanted to re-create those bonds."

Saltzman, who served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says the formation of BLEWS was an important step toward healing the growing rifts between Baltimore's African-American and Jewish communities--communities that over the years had increasingly moved away from each other, both geographically and socially. In the late 1960s and early '70s, many Jewish residents fled Baltimore neighborhoods like Forest Park and Park Heights for suburbs like Pikesville. Synagogues also left the city and decamped to the burbs.

BLEWS, one of only a handful of organizations in the country dedicated to promoting better relations between the African-American and Jewish communities, is marking its 25th anniversary on Nov. 19 with a gala celebration at which it will honor Victorine Adams, former city councilwoman and longtime civil-rights activist. The organization has kept a relatively low profile during the past few years--members say they've been more interested in working on projects and youth-education initiatives than in seeking publicity--but BLEWS President Matthew Weinstein says the group has not been dormant. Its work with young people has "been the renaissance of BLEWS since 1997," the year it held its first teen summit that brought together 300 African-American and Jewish teens to discuss stereotypes and prejudice, Weinstein says. Since then, one of BLEWS' main concerns has been youth education. Weinstein says BLEWS has partnered with schools, including Pikesville High School and Baltimore City College, to bring teens together for daylong workshops led by professional facilitators who encourage participants to share experiences and information about racism and anti-Semitism. The workshops also establish common ground among the teens through music, poetry, and art projects.

"It's a way we're making a positive difference without making headlines," he says. "If you're not working with youth to address prejudices and stereotypes, you're not really working to get at the roots of racism."

Though many of the hot issues BLEWS dealt with when it was founded have evolved (some have even run their course, Weinstein acknowledges), the organization is still working to lay the foundation for the next generation of black-Jewish relations say BLEWS members.

"Apartheid was a huge issue for African-Americans and Jews in the 1980s," says Calvin Burnett, president emeritus of Coppin State College and a founding BLEWS member. Burnett recalls that, initially, BLEWS members met monthly to not only to talk about incendiary issues such as apartheid, but also to debunk stereotypes, fight bigotry, and to seek out common concerns. Over the years, the 300-member group (membership is about half African-American and half Jewish, and presidents alternate between Jews and African-Americans) has used these meetings to discuss everything from lynching and other hate crimes, to the specifics of the Holocaust and the Middle Passage, says Charles G. Tilden Jr., past president of Baltimore City Community College and another founding member of the group.

BLEWS's dinner-and-dialogue meetings have died out in recent years, but the group is hoping to revive the sessions and tailor their content to address current events of interest to members.

"We tried to be very objective in our analysis [of topics for discussion]," notes Tilden, who says that during a meeting years ago he was surprised to find that none of the Jewish members present knew what the Middle Passage was.

Low-key, one-on-one dialogue, as opposed to picket lines and petition circulating, has always been the hallmark of BLEWS's activism. For example, in the late 1990s, the group began holding youth Seders that incorporated elements of the traditional Jewish Passover Seder with the Overcome Seder, an African-American ritual and celebration written by the Rev. Peter Bramble of Baltimore. The theme of these Seders is freedom from slavery and oppression, an issue common to both African-Americans and Jews. In activities like these, sensitive issues are exposed and discussed--in the process, misconceptions can be shattered before they can take hold.

"People grew up with mythologies about each other that weren't well-founded," says another BLEWS founding member, Kenneth Montague, now state secretary of Juvenile Services. "Experiencing the lives of other groups enables all of us to participate with one and other."

In the post-Sept. 11 century, where images of Muslim radicals and paranoia about axes of evil fill the airwaves, BLEWS may appear to some to be little more than a benign anachronism, a holdover from a time when the relationship between African-Americans and Jews was much more tense. Weinstein, though, says the group is as relevant and necessary as ever. He observes that as long as issues of anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry are apparent in global, national, and local events, organizations like BLEWS have reason to exist.

"America still has a big issue with diversity," he continues. "There's still a sense that when an African-American family moves in to Pikesville, a white family moves out. America is still a very segregated country."

Weinstein also points out that, when it comes to flexing collective political muscle, African-Americans and Jews represent the highest-voting Democratic constituents in the United States and ought to work together to tackle their common problems.

"There have been very few organizations that have brought African-Americans and Jews together," Burnett says. "There's no question that the Jewish community and the African-American community are the social conscience of this country."

On Nov. 19 BLEWS will honor Victorine Adams at a 25th anniversary celebration. For tickets and information, call (410) 951-4199 or visit www.blews.org.

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