Black-Jewish seder: This is our coming-out party

It might have been enough when Oakland's Castlemont High School staff adopted a Holocaust education program after several of its African-American students laughed during a 1994 screening of "Schindler's List."

It might have been enough that the Malcolm X mural at San Francisco State University, which contained inflammatory anti-Semitic symbols, was sandblasted and repainted.

It might have been enough when Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation donated money for black and Jewish teens in Oakland to produce a play about race and culture.

But none of it is enough to repair the social rift that divides the two communities, according to about nine African-Americans and nine Jews who call themselves the Isaiah Project. The Bay Area group, funded by the Jewish Community Relations Council, was formed a year ago to repair the rift that in recent years has shifted, rumbled and still threatens a major rupture if corrective action is not taken — soon.

On Thursday of last week, the group and 57 friends and relatives gathered in San Francisco to sing their "Dayenus" at a Congregation Beth Sholom seder, funded by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund and officiated by Rabbi Alan Lew and the Rev. Amos Brown of San Francisco's Third Baptist Church.

"This is our coming-out party," said Clarence Pollard, an African-American member of the Isaiah Project, attending his fourth Beth Sholom seder.

"I see that [blacks and Jews] have a common struggle. We have both struggled from oppression. As teachers, we have the opportunity to change that."

Pollard said he gets flak from some African-American friends who don't understand his interest in black-Jewish relations.

"They sense we don't have things in common, so what's the point in dialoguing?"

The activist contends that blacks and Jews have much more in common than persecution and a history of slavery. But sympathetic relations between blacks and Jews went awry when the civil rights movement ran out of steam in the 1970s, and when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan fanned the fires of racism.

"We want to pick up the thread that we lost in the [1970s]," Pollard said. "Tonight's just a beginning."

Lew solicited the seder crowd for four impromptu questions, which inspired some to quote favorite historical heroes.

Brown quoted Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays, who was also a mentor of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Why is it that humankind has mastered the air, conquered the sea, annihilated distance and prolonged life, but it appears that we are not wise enough to live on this earth together without war, hate and confusion?"

Gadi Meir, a Jewish Isaiah Project member, asked whether we will pay for our greed and destruction of the environment and the Third World.

Rabbi Lew interjected, "How true it is that our questions define us."

He then led guests to read passages from a Haggadah prepared for the seder by Isaiah Project members. The prayerbook contained poetry by Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes and excerpts of speeches by black leaders interspersed with the story of the Exodus. Several African-American guests remarked that the rituals echoed their own feelings about oppression and racism.

Despite the chirpy chatter of a toddler in their midst, the worshippers began the ceremony with a quiet, uncertain reserve. But the Four Questions and subsequent eating of the Pesach symbols prompted chuckles and the soft drone of conversation as the crowd grew more relaxed.

Organizers said they were surprised at the size of the crowd, and had to turn some people away. Some on the guest list attended to find out what a seder was all about. Others simply wanted to show solidarity with the Isaiah Project. Several were trying to improve black-Jewish relations in their communities, too.

Regina Carey, a computer programmer and an African-American political activist from San Rafael, started a similar group in Marin after becoming acquainted with Jewish activists there.

"We developed friendships over the years, but dialogue stopped when it came to Israel, South Africa, Farrakhan and the way the O.J. story played against the Goldman family," Carey said. So she and her friends formed a group to pick up where the dialogue had become uncomfortable.

Erna Smith, chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University, and Jewish Studies director Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman attended the seder because they teach a course that examines black and Jewish stereotypes in the media.

"In the campus environment, [black-Jewish relations] comes up a lot," said Smith, who is African-American. "It's particularly touchy at State because of the emphasis on Middle East issues and the discourse on colonialism. It's so much in the rhetoric of student activism."

By evening's end, seder guests voiced hope for future collaboration and concluded the evening arm in arm, swaying and singing, "We Shall Overcome."

"It's been a beautiful experience," said Francine Carter of the troubled Bayview-Hunter's Point neighborhood. "This says a lot to me. Things are changing."

Rita Semel, vice president of Jewish Family and Children's Services, added, "The talking is great but now they're ready to do something. Like tossing a pebble in a pond, you never know where the ripples are going to go."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.