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African-Americans and Jews build bridges
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African-Americans and Jews build bridges

The Rev. Dr. Ronald Owens, left, of the New Hope Baptist Church in Metuchen shares a humorous moment with Rabbi Robert Wolkoff at Congregation B’nai Tikvah. Photos by Debra Rubin
The Rev. Dr. Ronald Owens, left, of the New Hope Baptist Church in Metuchen shares a humorous moment with Rabbi Robert Wolkoff at Congregation B’nai Tikvah. Photos by Debra Rubin

Jewish and African-American leaders discussed their shared struggle against discrimination in a forum honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

Held at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, the Jan. 6 forum included the Rev. Dr. Ronald Owens, senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Metuchen, and B’nai Tikvah’s Rabbi Robert Wolkoff. Members of both congregations joined the clergymen in a discussion circle.

The forum was sponsored by Second Generation, an organization for descendants of Holocaust survivors

“I think about Martin Luther King a lot,” said Second Generation founder Mirah Becker. “We all had different experiences growing up with survivor parents…. All of us in Second Generation have a depth of character hidden from our community.”

Becker, whose mother survived Auschwitz, said too often survivors’ children are shut down in their own synagogues and told that no one wants to talk about “blood and guts and gas chambers.”

“We say things when others won’t because we know that if other people had said something maybe there would not have been a Holocaust,” Becker said. “We will never allow that to happen again to anyone, not only Jews. It’s important for us to speak out. It’s in our moral fiber.”

Allen Weg of East Brunswick said because of their shared history, both the African-American and Jewish communities realize “the world could flip at any time.”

Church member Frances Moore of Metuchen related to the pain of those affected by the Holocaust. She said stories of the horrors of slavery are passed down through generations and “are embedded in our souls.”

“We’ve heard the stories of children torn from their parents, never to be seen again,” she said. “We know these stories are true just like you know the Holocaust is not a fantasy.”

After Reconstruction, “we were not slaves in name, but we were still slaves,” Moore added, “not allowed to own land and treated less than animals.”

“Just like the Jewish community, we will never forget,” she said. Like the Jewish community, African-Americans have stressed education as a way to rise above the past, she said.

Owens, a veteran of the civil rights movement, recalled the many Jews, including a number of Holocaust survivors, who marched alongside him.

“When I say white people, I mean Jews — because they were all Jews,” he said. “They saw what was happening in the black community and said, ‘I will not put up with this. I will not allow this to happen again.’”

However, as has happened with members of the Jewish community, many newly affluent blacks who have moved “from the slums to the suburbs” don’t want to look back at past struggles, the pastor said.

Owens lamented that lack of perspective. “You don’t know what your goals and progresses are unless you know where you came from…where God has brought you to,” he said.

Wolkoff said many in the Jewish community are “extraordinarily disoriented” because “in a blink of an eye the two most dramatic events in our 4,000-year-old history,” the Holocaust and the founding of Israel, occurred.

Owens spoke warmly of his own trip to Israel, where he visited, among other places, the Golan Heights and Kibbutz Ein Gedi, and his deepened understanding of the threats Israel faces.

He said part of King’s lasting legacy was his ability to bring together coalitions to fight injustice for all, calling him “not just a black civil rights leader, but a human civil rights leader.”

Owens said the evening’s discussion “with this rabbi, this congregation has made us feel so full of confidence” about rekindling the alliance.

Lauren Cohen, cochair of B’nai Tikvah’s religious school committee, said she would like to raise awareness among students of the shared struggles.

“It’s my personal belief that we are all so much more alike than different,” she said. “I don’t like the word tolerance because we should do more than just be tolerant of each other. It is a scary world that our children face with all the bullying and bullying comes from ignorance… I would like to invite you to join us to teach our children to be more than just complacent, to be more than just tolerant.”

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