Birmingham mission shows black-Jewish ties live on

Jonathan Rothschild, chair of Tucson’s Jewish Community Relations Council, left, with Pastor Keni Ashby (Teaneck, N.J.) and Larry Schooler (Austin, Texas). (Courtesy JCPA)

Some pundits have declared the historic black-Jewish alliance of the civil rights era over, dead, finished.

Not so, say Tucsonans Jonathan Rothschild and Barbara Lewis, who in June took part in a Jewish Council on Public Affairs-sponsored African-American/Jewish Community Leaders Mission to Birmingham, Ala., to witness the still vibrant fruits of that alliance.

“These institutions, these places, I’d call some monuments … are still standing and being taken care of, and that was a Jewish-black collaboration — that’s how it started, and that’s how it is, still,” says Lewis, adviser to the president/CEO of the Tucson Urban League.

In much of the country, she acknowledges, the relationship is not as strong. JCPA created the missions — this was the third, with the previous two in New Orleans and next year’s scheduled for Detroit — to encourage black-Jewish collaboration as part of JCPA’s ongoing focus on ending poverty.

“It was a pretty powerful trip,” says Rothschild, an attorney and chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Highlights, he says, included a visit to the 16th Avenue Baptist Church, “which is where the bomb blew up the four little girls,” and an excursion to Montgomery and Selma, “where we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge [where civil rights marchers in 1965 were attacked by local lawmen] and had a little prayer ceremony.” In Montgomery, he says, the group visited Dr. Martin Luther King’s church, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative.

The sheer size and scope of many organizations visited, says Jeff Wojciechowski, JCPA Public Policy Fellow, was a reminder of the tenacity of past civil rights leaders, and “that hard work (sometimes excruciatingly hard work) is essential to making change.”

Barbara Lewis of the Tucson Urban League, right, with Acacia Salatti, deputy director of Birmingham’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (Courtesy JCPA)

Bringing the lessons learned home to Tucson means expanding the relationship to include the Hispanic community. Inspired by a multiethnic women’s group in Birmingham, Lewis is working with JCRC Director Brenda Landau to create a group that will start with seven African-American women, seven Hispanic women and seven Jewish women. At their first meeting, planned for late October, says Lewis, they’ll begin discussing “what we think we can change and make better” in the Tucson community.

Both Rothschild and Lewis got great satisfaction from the mission’s day of service in Birmingham, spent painting an elderly woman’s home. “It was hot, it was sweaty, it was miserable, but we did paint that woman’s house,” says Lewis. “Maybe our women’s group can put together more of those kinds of projects, because those are the places where you touch people.”

Rothschild notes that the mission invitation came from Josh Protas, Tucson’s former JCRC director, who is now director of JCPA’s Washington office.

JCPA organizers, says Protas, wanted to include “JCRCs that have had positive experiences engaging in interethnic relations and doing anti-poverty work with community partners. The successes of the Tucson JCRC in projects like the Tucson Freedom Seder, Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition, Tzedek Build, and Homer Davis Project made it a great fit.”