Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1963, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” His remark is prescient, to say the least, when it comes to the state of Black-Jewish relations in the present.
With the antisemitism controversy surrounding the rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West), this year’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day last week provides a crucial opportunity to transcend the challenge and controversy of these times in order to focus on what unites the Black and Jewish communities, rather than what may divide them.
In early December, a diverse group of 15 Israeli summer camp directors, from the “Summer Camps Israel” initiative together with The Jewish Agency for Israel, visited Atlanta as part of the first, yearlong Jewish Peoplehood through Summer Camps Cohort program. The gravity of the moment was unmistakable when, on the very footsteps of Dr. King’s family home, Israeli directors heard from decorated National Park Service ranger Marty Smith. He discussed how much Black people have in common with Israeli and American Jews, from our shared values of family and community, to strong work ethic and motivation, to senses of both individual responsibility and collective peoplehood.
As Israeli informal educators, to learn and experience Atlanta, is simultaneously a unique and relatable experience. We began to understand what it means for American Jews to be a minority, choosing to connect to their Jewish identity and Israel, and how historically American Jews connected to the African American community. These are powerful realities that as an Israeli Jews, you likely did not fully grasp before. Furthermore, we realized that much like fostering Black-Jewish relations in times of controversy, uniting the Jewish people is never an easy task, especially in the moments when it seems like world Jewry and Israeli Jewry are drifting apart. That is exactly why The Jewish Agency and Summer Camps Israel collaborated on this cohort program that included a journey to Atlanta.
The Jewish Agency operates as a living bridge between Israeli society and the Jewish world by promoting Jewish peoplehood – and it was only natural for us to collaborate with Summer Camps Israel, founded by Shawna Goodman for the purpose of bringing North American excellence to Israel, in a highly adaptive Israeli format, and to build the field of overnight summer camps in Israel. Together, we want to educate Israelis about global Jewish peoplehood and expose members of world Jewry to Israelis. We know this needs to be done through reciprocal and meaningful relationships between Jews in Israel and around the world, through peoplehood-focused educational programs and processes.
During our Atlanta journey, Israeli summer camp directors led by Jewish Agency senior staff deepened their understanding of the central issues that shape American Jewish life, while expanding their professional knowledge in the world of American summer camps with an emphasis on connecting with the Jewish people. Throughout this process, we discuss how to include and promote, through summer camp setting, the value of Jewish peoplehood – in its relevance to Israelis. The program includes learning and enrichment sessions in Israel, an educational trip to the Jewish community in Atlanta, and participation in “Leaders Assembly conference” in collaboration with the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Getting to know the Jewish community in Atlanta, as well as hearing firsthand about hopes and concerns over the US-Israel relationship from both the communal perspective and from individuals, represented a timely and important experience. We encountered a unique, warm, diverse, and highly hospitable Atlanta community, led by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Consulate General of Israel to the Southeastern US, who opened its institutions and personal homes to us.
Ultimately, our journey to Atlanta was much more than a travel experience. In our polarized society, we returned to Israel inspired to act on “we” the Jewish people rather than just “me,” an Israeli. As educators, we now have the inspiration and tools to create informal, immersive experiences for Israelis that implement the crucial steps toward both building a better Israeli society and strengthening global Jewish peoplehood.