On Wednesday evening, June 17, 2015, shots were heard in the heart of downtown Charleston, SC. Eight people were murdered at the historic Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church; the ninth died later at the hospital.
It took only a few moments for our small city of roughly 125,000 residents to find ourselves in the national spotlight. As the days dragged on, we learned more about the murderer and his white supremacist background. The Jewish community joined the entire Charleston community in grieving, and also, to consider potential reactions. These reactions ranged from a call to remove all symbols of racism, including the Confederate flag, (which until a few months ago still hung at South Carolina’s state capitol grounds), to editorials in the papers denying that social justice issues exist in Charleston at all.
At Charleston Jewish Federation, we fielded calls from our colleagues across the world, offering help and assistance. With every well-meaning voice on the other end of the phone, I found myself more and more in shock, as we all tried to make sense of what the Charleston Jewish community’s reaction to such a tragedy ought to be.
Our hearts were broken. We understood that an attack on one house of worship is an attack on all houses of worship, and that this tragic incident shook the foundation of what it means to be secure. To target peaceful worshipers for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin is abhorrent and horrendous. The unspeakable murder of nine accomplished, beloved and respected African-American Charlestonians of faith in their own church had hit our city like an earthquake.
Within the Jewish community there was a strong desire to strengthen ties with the African American community in the face of this tragedy in a meaningful and productive way.
So it was fortuitous that within this atmosphere a call came in from Jon Adam Ross regarding the inHEIRitance Project. In light of the current events, Jon was feeling hesitant about bringing the show to our city. He wanted to proceed respectfully and sensitively. I deeply appreciated Jon’s concerns. But I also saw an opportunity for good.
Together, we realized that the InHEIRitance Project, which engages the entire community in the artistic process, could be just the vehicle by which the local Jewish community extends a hand to the African American community to mitigate any potential rifts during a fragile time in our city’s collective grieving. We got to work.
The inHEIRitance team came to Charleston for two weeks in February and brought engaging activities to numerous schools, facilitated interfaith bible studies with Jewish and African American clergy, visited our synagogues and churches, and even ran programs for our local teens to get us all to wrestle with the themes in the great biblical story of Rebecca: motherhood, preference, favoritism, sibling rivalry, prophesy, trickery and more.
The team was met with a sigh of relief from all those who participated in their workshops. Finally, months after the tragedy, people were ready to talk and process their feelings. While the final product of the play will not specifically be about the shooting at the church, it will be about the larger and universal themes found in the story of Rebecca. What’s more, since the story of this Jewish matriarch provides numerous themes for exploration, including the intensity felt of brothers warring in her womb, it was decided early on that instead of a one-man act (the format of the first inHEIRitance Project play staged in Minnesota) this production would include an additional cast member—the talented Broadway African-American actor Darian Dauchan, who will play Jon’s metaphorical brother in Rebecca’s womb.
Jon and his team will return to Charleston in June to perform the Rebecca play at an established theater, a Jewish community space, and an African-American church as part of Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto arts festival. The timing of the play and the festival also coincide with the one-year anniversary of the tragic mass shooting. Since this play has created a vehicle for the local African American and Jewish community to come together in a meaningful way, we want to keep up the momentum and opportunities for interaction and artistic expression. Therefore, proceeds from this play will allow Charleston Jewish Federation to create grant opportunities in the future for the African American and Jewish artists in Charleston to make art together, a process that is needed as we continue to recover, together.
Thanks to the InHEIRitance Project and the Covenant Foundation, the healing impact of the artistic process is already being felt in our extraordinary city.
By Rebecca Leibowitz, for The Covenant Foundation
“Julius Rosenwald is one of the greatest examples for American Jews of tzedakah, tikkun olam, and repairing the world without fanfare — doing it just because he wants to make a difference,” said Aviva Kempner, the writer, producer and director of the film Rosenwald, which opened in New York in August of 2015.
Now, the son of German-Jewish immigrants who became one of the richest men in America and partnered with Booker T. Washington to build over 5,000 schools for poverty-stricken African-American children in the south, will join the likes of Albert Einstein, Louis Brandeis, Emma Lazarus, Henrietta Szold, Mordechai Kaplan and many others in the Only in America exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
Rosenwald’s induction into this core exhibition at the NAMJH is purposefully slated to coincide with Jewish American Heritage Month in May, a 30-day happening that aims to recognize the contributions of Jewish individuals to American culture and society. “We think Rosenwald is a great example of 1st generation American and Jew who did great things for both the Jewish community and the African American community,” said Ivy Barsky, CEO and Gwen Goodman Director of the Museum. “His is a true example of astoundingly transformative educational philanthropy.”
Check out the National American Museum of Jewish Heritage website to learn more about their exhibitions and programs: NMAJH.org.
The Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor is a 5-semester degree program conducted over 20 consecutive months. Enrolled students earn a Master’s in Social Work, a Certificate in Jewish Communal Leadership, engage in a wide range of fieldwork opportunities and receive generous funding. We chatted with program director Karla Goldman, the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Jewish Studies, and graduating student Emily Zussman to learn more about the social justice aspects of the JCLP program.
How does Social Justice apply to Social Work in the JCLP program?
KG: As MSW students at the University of Michigan, JCLP students pursue a curriculum focused on the dynamics of privilege, oppression, diversity, and social justice. Our students bring those lenses to their study of and immersion in local and national Jewish communities. In courses and field placements, they encounter the diversity of identities within the Jewish community and the Jewish community’s place within the broader American societal spectrum. They take a deep interest in how American Jews navigate and embody American diversity and contemplate the challenges facing a community defined in large part by an affluence that can obscure the presence of those still in need.
Does the program change depending on certain societal issues? (I.E. have movements such as Black Lives Matter affected course offerings, program activities, student placements after graduation)?
KG: Current issues are always on the table at JCLP, whether in on-line discussions of current media, the weekly seminar, during local and national site visits, in the context of the American Jews and Social Justice course, or in JCLP public programs.
This year, JCLP offered a deep dive into issues of Boundaries, Difference, and Self. In transformative meetings with young Jews working for a more just Detroit, students explored the complex dynamics of the Jewish community’s reengagement with urban challenges. They discovered the thrilling potential of cooperation across sectarian lines in meeting with leaders of the regional Arab community’s exemplary social welfare organization, ACCESS, in Dearborn, Michigan. Through encounters with a broad range of national advocacy groups, campus Hillel and community leaders, local supporters of Palestinian students, and a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, they delved into the complexities and implications of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. At the recent inaugural Limmud Michigan held at the University, JCLP graduating students presented a dedicated track of sessions focused on social justice: exploring the activism of young Jews in Detroit, a women’s Arab-Jewish dialogue group in Ann Arbor, the meaning of tikkun olam, the challenge of coalition and intersectionality in social justice work, and LGBTQ experiences in the Jewish community. Throughout the year, local and national leaders invited students into the deliberations surrounding a range of current issues as well.
Tell us about the intersection of Judaic Studies and Social Justice, in the schema of the program.
EZ: The intersection of Judaic Studies and Social Justice is what makes our program unique. Every week in our JCLP seminar, we discuss how our Jewish values come through in social justice work even if the work is not "Jewish" itself. Additionally, we are really able to live this intersection in our field placements. We do a year-long field placement at a Jewish organization and work with our field supervisor and liaisons to marry our social work education with the work we do at our organizations. We are assigned to projects that specifically relate to core competencies of our social work education. This program combines our two passions, Jewish Community and Social Justice effortlessly to provide a unique perspective that we will carry with us as we enter the Jewish communal world professionally.
Most recently, what are students choosing to do with their degree?
KG: Recent JCLP graduates have taken on a range of professional roles that match the diversity of interests present in JCLP’s student cohorts. Of twenty recent graduates, five are working in social welfare settings, four in Jewish federations, seven in education-related work, two in organizations focused on social justice (Ma’yan in New York and Share our Strength in Denver), and two in health care settings. Sixty per cent are working in Jewish family service or elder care agencies, synagogues, federations, or foundations, and the remaining 40% are working outside of the Jewish community in agencies focused on education, health care, and social welfare.
Karla Goldman is Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan where she directs the Jewish Communal Leadership Program. She is the author of Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Harvard University Press). She serves on the national boards of Keshet and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Emily Zussman will be graduating from the Jewish Communal Leadership Program in May. In June, she will start a new position as Executive Assistant to the Executive Director of OneTable in New York City.