National Black-Jewish Bible Study

Lisi Wolf

The Vision

Relationships are personal. The best way to advance the Black-Jewish relationship is through one on one relationships at a local level. On the other hand, the Black-Jewish relationship is national. It’s bigger than any of our local communities. So, networking with each other gives a deeper context to our work and it makes us stronger. Knowing we have allies in our cause around the country encourages us. And, we can learn about best practices from each other. Each of our communities is bringing our own perspectives to fighting racism and antisemitism. Together, we are a greater force.

The Method

We begin the year by picking a book of the Bible for our focus. Our starting point is Old Testament text, but New Testament sources are often included. Each month, a clergy team of a rabbi and minister from a different city  leads the Biblical text discussion. The leaders are empowered to take their own direction. But, everyone stays within the same framework of trying to see these texts through the lens of the Black, Jewish, and Black-Jewish experience.

Partners

Atlanta
  • Minister Cynthia Bynum
  • Rabbi Lydia Medwin
Chicago
  • Rev. Chris Harris
  • Rabbi Michael Siegel
Detroit
  • Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity (Ashira Solomon)
  • Rabbi Asher Lopatin
  • Rev. Robyn Moore
  • Rabbi Dan Syme
New York
  • Rabbi Burt Visotzky
  • Rev. Lisa Jenkins
  • Rev. Julie Johnson Staples
Philadelphia
  • Rabbi David Strauss
  • Rev. Steven Lawrence
Seattle
  • Dr. Mark Jones
  • Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum
  • Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
  • Bishop Garry Tyson
  • Rev. Dr. Linda Smith
  • Rev. Steve Baber
Atlanta
  • Minister Cynthia Bynum
  • Rabbi Lydia Medwin
Chicago
  • Rev. Chris Harris
  • Rabbi Michael Siegel
Detroit
  • Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity (Ashira Solomon)
  • Rabbi Asher Lopatin
  • Rev. Robyn Moore
  • Rabbi Dan Syme
New York
  • Rabbi Burt Visotzky
  • Rev. Lisa Jenkins
  • Rev. Julie Johnson Staples
Philadelphia
  • Rabbi David Strauss
  • Rev. Steven Lawrence
Seattle
  • Dr. Mark Jones
  • Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum
  • Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
  • Bishop Garry Tyson
  • Rev. Dr. Linda Smith
  • Rev. Steve Baber
Sample Program

Genesis 13

The Teaching

In Genesis 12, Abraham had taken his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot to the land of Canaan which God had promised him. They were all following a dream together. But, in Genesis 13, there was dissension within the family. Lot and Abraham each had large flocks of sheep and goats. And, their shepherds were arguing over the pasture land. Abraham told Lot: "You pick the part of the land you want, and I’ll take the other half." Lot chose the fertile land of Sodom, even though the people who lived in Sodom were wicked. The result was that Abraham and Lot separated. They no longer lived in one household. The questions raised were: "Did Abraham and Lot act appropriately to solve their family quarrel? What lessons can we draw from their behavior?"

The Discussion

In response to this text, we explored the following themes:

Separation

Separation as a response to family conflict has its pluses and its minuses. It seems that there was a time when Blacks and Jews were closer. We fought side by side in the Civil Rights Movement. But, in the late sixties we began to go our separate ways. Was this a positive or a negative? We could see a positive side. Both the Black and Jewish communities had a need to turn inward and to develop our own identity. We were both populations that had known the pain of being vulnerable to the whims of others. We needed to show our independence, that we could make it on our own. This was vital for our growth and self-confidence. For Blacks, this independence took the form of the Black Power Movement and the Black is Beautiful idea. For Jews, it took the form of fighting for particular Jewish causes like supporting the State of Israel (itself an expression of the need for Jewish independence) and freeing Soviet Jewry.

On the other hand, both Blacks and Jews need allies. And, we have allowed our need for our own identity to get in the way of that. As much as we value our independence, we can’t achieve our dreams without support from friends. The Book of Genesis makes it clear that separation is not a great long term solution for family conflict. It was the chosen solution of Abraham and Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Each of these pairs become separate nations.  But, at the end of Genesis Joseph and his brothers do not separate, despite their great differences. They resolve their issues and remain one family, while retaining their tribal identity. This suggests that for Blacks and Jews, it’s important that we find away to be closer to each other without compromising our need for independence.

The Illusion of Self-Help

It seemed particularly important to Lot to be his own person, to own his own land. But the Bible makes it clear that all the land we live on is God’s. We are only the stewards. The American idea of independence has often been turned against Blacks. We are told that to be an American is to be a rugged individual, to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps without help from anyone else. And, Blacks have often been negatively compared with other American ethnic groups who came to America with little, and seemed to make it on their own. But, Dr. King said “it is cruel to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Blacks were not immigrants fleeing persecution to the land of opportunity. They were brought to America in chains. And, white people in America did not make it without help. The government gave white Americans housing loans, subsidies for education and outright grants that were denied to Black Americans. Moreover, the growth of the American economy in the 19th century was on the backs of Black slaves.

In Deuteronomy, the Jewish people are told that God took them out of slavery and brought them to the Promised Land. When they prospered, they would be tempted to say: “We took ourselves out of slavery! We did this on our own!” But, they did not. Nobody makes it on their own. Every human being starts out as a small helpless child, and only because of the goodness of others, do they grow to be independent. Americans need to rid themselves of this illusion of complete independence. When taken to the extreme, this makes us cruel and insensitive. It ignores the fact that none of us has gotten to where we are today without help.

What is the American Dream?

Abraham and Lot made different choices, rooted in different values. For Abraham, family harmony was primary. He was willing to give the more fertile land to Lot for the sake of family peace. For Lot, financial success was primary. He was attracted to the fertile land of Sodom, even though the people of Sodom were selfish and cruel. We have to make this choice today. What is the American dream? Is it about making the most money we can? Or, is it about creating a just, equal and harmonious society? If it’s the latter, the choices we make as a nation will reflect that.

The Unfinished Business of Blacks and Jews

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. had a dream of building beloved community in America. This was not a vision of two separate Americas, one white and one Black. We have made progress towards Dr. King’s vision. But his dream has not yet been realized. There may have been good reasons for Blacks and Jews to separate. It was important for our growth. There were things we needed to learn by ourselves.  But separation  is not a permanent solution. We have unfinished business together. There is still work to do. And, this is an ideal moment in American history for Blacks and Jews to join forces again to resume the work of building beloved community.

The Commentary

Upcoming Events

A full calendar for the year will be available soon.
Black-Jewish Bible Study has been especially enlightening. It’s a space where individuals from the Black community and from the Jewish community come together to discuss text, and bring text into context regarding present day issues and events. I’ve learned so much from this crew and look forward to continued growth together.
Ashira Solomon
Rabbi Jay and Dr. Mark have done an outstanding job organizing multiple series of powerful Building Beloved Community interactive discussions for the Black and Jewish communities. While each meeting begins with Bible text to create neutral and mutually relatable content, discussions quickly launch into passionate, deeply resonating topics with personal histories, stories, and pleas. Conversations and experiences are shared with truth, emotion, and sincere openness. We lean into the belief that supporting each other will proceed at the speed for which trust and relationships are built. I made a dear new friend through my participation in this group. We’ve met on Zoom once a week for two years since the start of the Pandemic. This group and our growing relationships are a personal inspiration and can serve as a model that would greatly benefit all communities. I hope to see an expansion of this noble and worthwhile mission.
Etana Kunovsky