June 22, 2024
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Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition Starts Strong

In recent decades, there have been a number of efforts—on the national and local levels—to create strong partnerships between representatives of Black and Jewish communities, to jointly battle prejudice and advance shared aims. As a result, you might think the announcement in late November of the formation of the Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition (MBJC) might elicit some limited interest, as observers waited to see its impact and lasting power.

The response, however, was anything but tepid. As the group’s co-chair, Norma Vargas reported, “From the moment we went public, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback; many people are excited and want to help. There’s lots of interest.”

The outpouring of interest may simply reflect the tense times we live in, with publicly reported incidents of anti-Semitism and racism at their highest levels in over a decade. However, the enthusiastic response to the MBJC may also have a lot to do with the composition of the group. It brings together well-regarded leaders from both communities, including Highland Park Councilman Josh Fine, Highland Park Human Relations Commission Chair Ashton Burrell (co-chair of the group), Rutgers Hillel Associate Director Rabbi Esther Reed, Wilf Campus for Senior Living Chaplain Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner, Rutgers Jewish Faculty leader Professor Rebecca Cypess and prominent community activists Norma Vargas, Sonya Headlam, Gary Leslie, Bruno Palmer and Sarah Zell-Young.

Another reason for the strong response could be the fact that this initiative has uncommonly strong roots in the observant Jewish community, with MBJC members Fine, Vargas, Kinzbrunner, Cypess and Zell-Young all affiliated with Orthodox synagogues in the community.

As Vargas explained, the MBJC began meeting quietly in June (by Zoom) to get to know each other, before going public. Members of the group engaged in “tough conversations,” sharing their personal experiences with bias and their perceptions of members of other groups. As Burrell stated in the release announcing the group’s formation: “We wanted to create an opportunity for dialogue, to increase appreciation for the unique struggles both communities face at this difficult time. But we also want to explore ways each community can support the other’s fight against bigotry.”

Over the months that followed, MBJC members became better acquainted and more trusting with each other and gradually became a cohesive unit.

MBJC Vice-Chair Bruno Palmer, a rehabilitation counselor at Rutgers who also juggles a personal barber shop/barber supply business, community activism and a growing family, shared: “When Ashton first told me about this group, I was immediately interested. I believe that minimizing distortions and negative perceptions of other groups is very helpful. We have to lessen tensions and reduce the reservations people have about other groups.”

Professor Rebecca Cypess stated: “The Black and Jewish communities of Central New Jersey have much in common, including shared aspirations and shared concerns. In the effort to understand one another, there is nothing more important than opening direct, personal lines of contact. In my roles as an Orthodox Jewish woman and a professor at Rutgers, I am proud to be part of the work that MBJC is doing to encourage these relationships.”

Councilman Josh Fine added: “Through serving on the Borough Council, I got to know and work with many members of Highland Park’s diverse community, and it has solidified my belief that a more just society may only be achieved if we all work together and support each other. I believe that the Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition has the potential to foster greater understanding between our communities, through ongoing dialogue about our life experiences and working together to bring about much needed social justice reforms.”

In the release announcing the group’s formation, the MBJC set as their goal “to offer interaction and education, especially through programs such as discussion panels, film screenings, book readings and social events.” The group also pledged to “advocate for definite action on issues facing both communities and provide a mechanism whereby each community can express its support for the critical issues of the other community.”

The MBJC coupled the news of their formation with an announcement of their first event—the release on YouTube on Sunday, December 6, of a set of four interviews, on the theme “Hear Thy Neighbor.” The interview subjects are Highland Park Councilwoman Elsie Foster, Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva Head of School Rabbi Daniel Loew, Old Bridge Councilwoman Edina Brown and former New Brunswick resident Rabbi Jonathan Bickhardt.

Councilwoman Foster, who has served on the Highland Park governing body for 20 years, stated: “I’m happy to support and lend a helping hand to any group that is looking to build bridges and create a more harmonious environment, in this polarizing time. We want to create a more understanding society and the efforts of the MBJC can truly help.”

Rabbi Loew commented: “I am honored to be one of the interviewees for the inaugural event of the Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition. A familiarity with each other’s stories is the basis for mutual understanding, which will help us to be more compassionate about the challenges our communities face.”

The reaction to the new MBJC by one prominent elected official indicates the unique potential and promise of the group.

“I’m delighted to see the formation and first event of the Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition, “ said Gayle Brill Mittler, mayor of Highland Park. “I’ve long been an advocate of coalition building between these two groups and believe that vibrant and respectful partnerships advance the interests of all of us. I’m so impressed to see two local leaders in Highland Park, who are respected for their coalition building skills—Norma Vargas and Ashton Burrell—coordinating this effort. It’s wonderful to see our councilwoman, Elsie Foster, featured in the December 6 virtual event. The MBJC can do a whole lot of good. We are much stronger together. I wish them much success in uniting these two segments of our population!”

To contact the MBJC, email�[email protected]

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