JCRC/AJC Brings Jewish and African American Students Together to Understand Each Other’s History

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Rev. Sterling Brewer and a Pershing student engage in important conversation
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Rev. Sterling Brewer and a Pershing student engage in important conversation. (Stinson Photography LLC)

Their mission was to learn about each other’s historical suffering — the Holocaust in Europe and slavery in America — and how these communities were able to survive that hatred, racism and antisemitism.

On May 25, JBLU was launched. The Jewish Black Unity project was inspired by Israeli Consul Yinam Cohen in a meeting with Black and Jewish leaders of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity when he called for building bridges between Jewish and African American students — and hopefully leading to partnerships with Israeli students as well.  JBLU was the offshoot of that meeting, created by JCRC/AJC’s Israel Associate Adar Rubin and the Council of Baptist Pastors’ Rev. Sterling Brewer. 

Black students from Pershing High School in Detroit met up at the Zekelman Holocaust Center with Jewish students — three from Frankel Jewish Academy and three from Farber Hebrew Day School. Their mission was to learn about each other’s historical suffering — the Holocaust in Europe and slavery in America — and how these communities were able to survive that hatred, racism and antisemitism. The deeper, long-term goal was for diverse students to meet each other and start to understand the challenges that they each face — both similar and different.

Jewish and Black students at the Anne Frank exhibit at the Holocaust Center
Jewish and Black students at the Anne Frank exhibit at the Holocaust Center. Stinson Photography LLC
Rev. Brewer connects with Jewish and Black students and with JCRC/AJC staff.
Rev. Brewer connects with Jewish and Black students and with JCRC/AJC staff. Stinson Photography LLC

“Our communities, Jewish and Black, and our youth, have so much in common, from our histories to the hatred we both currently face. The challenge for us is to understand each other better, to realize our shared needs and to work together to help each other,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC Detroit.

The students began the morning by hearing from a next-generation, daughter of Holocaust survivors and then experiencing the HC’s large Holocaust history exhibit. They were led by one of the center’s expert guides and spent time understanding the horrors of antisemitism in its most vicious form, including observing the Center’s cattle car that transported hundreds of Jews to their death. 

Then, after a kosher lunch, the students took buses and cars to spend time at the Charles H Wright Museum of African American History, to shift over and work on understanding the horrors of the African American experience as slaves, and the racism and hatred that enabled that cruel, inhuman system.

Guide meets with students to start their tour of the Charles H. Wright Museum.
Guide meets with students to start their tour of the Charles H. Wright Museum. Stinson Photography LLC
Black and Jewish students experience together the cruelty of Black slavery at the museum
Black and Jewish students experience together the cruelty of Black slavery at the museum Stinson Photography LLC

Rev. Brewer summarized the experience: “The Charles Wright Museum and the Zekelman Holocaust Center field trip between high schools, one from the Black community and two from the Jewish community, was an exceptional experience bringing together two different cultures with similar history as related to slavery.

“The purpose for this field trip was to begin developing relationships between future leaders from our young people in the Jewish and Black communities,” he continued. “Our children learned some hard facts about each other’s backgrounds that can be a foundation where trust can build for future learning experiences in the area of STEM education. Furthermore, these learning experiences can build stronger global communities — relationships between both groups for the common good within the world we live in today.”

JCRC/AJC’s Rubin said, “In an age of extreme political polarization … It is critical now more than ever that we provide more interfaith and intercultural opportunities to bring people together, to intellectually process our shared history of struggle, but most importantly… to tell our stories of triumph as a testament of being the future collaborators and community leaders of tomorrow.”

One of the Pershing students spoke powerfully, “I never knew the Jews went through so much… People were trying to take them off the face of the Earth… Hatred for no reason…  I never knew anything about that till today.” 

Students learn of Jewish communities destroyed in Europe due to hatred and racism.
Students learn of Jewish communities destroyed in Europe due to hatred and racism. Stinson Photography LLC
Students confront a real cattle car that brought Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust.
Students confront a real cattle car that brought Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust. Stinson Photography LLC

Story and photos submitted by JCRC/AJC.

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