PHOTO: The Reverend Dr. Gerald Durley and Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana stand on the bimah during Congregation Beth Israel’s 15th annual MLK Shabbat Jan. 14, which had to switched to virtual as Omicron was surging. Rev. Dr. Durley spoke live via Zoom in Beth Israel’s empty sanctuary. This year’s music included videos of the gospel and Beth Israel choirs from previous years as well as several new songs the choirs recorded.
BY DEBORAH MOON
Black-Jewish relations have frayed in the decades since the two communities marched arm-in-arm for civil rights. In honor of Black History Month, following is a brief look at some of the local efforts to heal that rift.
“This historic relationship through the Civil Rights Movement has lost its way a bit,” says Beth Israel Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana. Cahana’s father was a Houston rabbi deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and Rabbi Cahana has sought to continue that work here in Portland.
“Cross culturally, there are always divisions, breaches in relationships,” says Pastor Emmet Wheatfall, who participated in a Black-Jewish dialogue group that has stayed in touch over the years. “Dialogue enables us to put stuff on the table and look at and discuss it, and, in the words of Stephen Covey, ‘seek first to understand then to be understood.’”
During the BLM protests over the past two years, many members of the Jewish community, including rabbis, have joined the marches to call for racial justice.
“When dialogue happens, people become advocates,” says the pastor. “We can become defenders of what is true.”
Pastor Wheatfall has developed many close friendships with Jewish people, which have resulted in understanding and joint programming. His close friendship with Jewish Federation of Greater Portland Community Relations Director Bob Horenstein inspired the creation of United in Spirit. Originally a project of the JCRC, NAACP and Dialogues Unlimited, the group has expanded into a broad-based faith and cultural coalition, though the current NAACP leadership has not continued to participate.
“Recently, we have been meeting with the NAACP President to reset the relationship with the new leadership,” says Horenstein. “It’s been an opportunity to understand what our organizations work on and where common ground might be.”
Last year, United in Spirit hosted a series of webinars on the history of discrimination in Oregon, beginning with an exploration of anti-Black racism. The series culminated in a daylong virtual summit titled “Community Call to Confront Hate.”
In April, local African-American and Jewish leaders will participate in an eye-opening Civil Rights Mission to Georgia and Alabama. The trip has been organized by JFGP and two mostly African-American churches, with about half of the 42 participants coming from each community, and with at least two Jews of Color who are part of both communities.
“We’ve had a series of Black-Jewish dialogue groups over the years, and we hope this trip will lead to another round of dialogues,” says Horenstein.
Rabbi Cahana, who is also a member of the JCRC, adds that Jews are not immune to being racists, and Blacks are not immune to anti-Semitism. “The more we know about each other and have relationships and dialogue, the less these kinds of prejudices can exist.”
When Rabbi Cahana moved to Portland 16 years ago, Pastor Matt Hennessee invited him to continue the longstanding participation of Rabbi Emanuel Rose, z”l, at the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, a historically African-American congregation. The relationship now includes an annual Martin Luther King Shabbat held at Congregation Beth Israel on the shabbat before MLK Day. The shabbat includes music from the Beth Israel choir and the NW Freedom Singers, a subset of a gospel choir that CBI congregant Ron Silver has sung in for many years. Silver and Cantor Ida Rae Cahana have worked together to “play a bit with the lyrics to make them appropriate to sing in synagogue but still really authentic gospel music.”
“They lean into the common themes of redemption and moving from slavery to freedom and joyful appreciation,” says Rabbi Cahana.
In addition to its annual MLK Shabbat, Beth Israel has hosted a series of programs including a series on How to be an Antiracist. The Mittleman Jewish Community Center and the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education also have hosted programs based on the book How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
The OJMCHE also featured panels from one of its core exhibits in its ground floor expanse of windows during the pandemic closures and BLM protests. Museum Director Judy Margles says they chose the panels from the core exhibition, Discrimination and Resistance, An Oregon Primer, “as part of our contribution to the conversation about racial injustice that has gripped Portland and the nation.”
The six panels – Exclude, Persist, Dehumanize, Protest, Segregate and Create – explored the Tools of Discrimination and the Tools of Resistance.
“Blacks and Jews have to understand the ways we stand together against white supremacy,” says Rabbi Cahana. “The ways we experience hatred are different, but we do have a commonality of white supremacists seeing us – Blacks, Jews, People of Color – as different.”
“We all have to learn our histories, and we all have to work for a more free society where people are judged individually, not by ethnicity or racial stereotypes,” concludes the rabbi.
Black History Month videos & webinar
Jewish Federations of North America teamed up with OpenDor Media for Black History Month to create a four-part video series on the (up and down) relations and intersection between the Black and Jewish communities.
A Feb. 28 webinar will reflect on what this month means for the greater Jewish community. It will feature members of Congress, the creators of the series and Jewish communal leaders.
To see the videos or register for the webinar, visit jewishtogether.org/racialjustice.
Artist's response to racial justice protests
Henk Pander, The Artist as Eyewitness to History includes four large-scale works painted by artist Henk Pander in response to Portland's 2020 protests for racial justice. The four paintings, including image at right, are on display at the Oregon Jewish Musuem and Center for Holocaust Education through May 15. ojmche.org
The Menashe Gallery at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education exhibition features four large-scale works painted by artist Henk Pander in response to Portland’s 2020 protests for racial justice.
The police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 shocked many citizens in Portland – and around the country – into a long-delayed reckoning for equal justice under the law. In some respects, such an uprising had not been seen since the 1960s. When the neighborhood around the Justice Center in Portland became the site of intense demonstrations, it was no surprise to those who know his art that Henk Pander turned his artistic vision to this historic place and time.
Pander is no novice to making politically inspired paintings. His long career includes paintings depicting his childhood memories of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam; the fate of Europe’s Jews; the Vietnam War; and Sept. 11, 2001. It also includes events in Oregon such as the 1948 Vanport flood and the 1999 sinking of the New Carissa, the freighter that grounded spilling oil in Coos Bay. Throughout his work, Pander has engaged the social world around him with a rare and remarkably moving moral passion.
Pander was born in 1937 in Haarlem, the Netherlands. His father was an artist who specialized in Bible illustrations. Pander studied at the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. Pander exemplifies the best of representational realism – not surprising for an artist trained in the classical Dutch traditions of Rembrandt and Vermeer. He is also, as an American, an immigrant and product of the 1960s, a universalist. His art exemplifies the power of visual art to express human experience and emotion, a position appropriate for an artist who understands himself as a history painter even as he magnifies and heightens historical reality through the prism of his imaginative vision.
Pander takes nothing for granted. He keeps images alive in his mind’s eye, polishing and refining their precision, producing a tableau of moments almost too painful to take in. Henk Pander fulfills the duty of the artist to remind us, in the most vivid and sometimes disturbing ways, of the pressing issues in our world today.