Jews, blacks share anniversary of day that slaves were freed

The Isaiah Project, now in its second year, is promoted as an "African-American and Jewish Alliance for Justice" which fosters discussion and social action between the groups.

To continue the dialogue, the Isaiah Project held its second barbecue late last month in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

The event was held to mark Juneteenth, a holiday the black community celebrates with barbecues to commemorate June 19, 1865.

On that date, the slaves in Texas and Louisiana learned for the first time that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Juneteenth is traditionally a time to remember the emancipation of all slaves and consider the meaning of freedom.

For Clarence Pollard, co-president with Gaines, the event marked "a belated coming of freedom and what it means to have been free but not know it. The event allowed us to think about what are the implications of this today and the kind of social pathology we are caught in."

It prompted people to consider, he said, "how we are not free even in a democracy."

Pollard said an understanding of one's own cultural background can often provide insights into the culture and history of another community.

"My core belief is that blacks and Jews have suffered disproportionately because of their racial or ethnic status.

"There are common elements of our sufferings, but not too many," he said. "We have suffered differently and have figured out different pathways out of it. We have discovered different ways how to survive and deliver ourselves from adversity."

As Juneteenth was honored, so were the friendships which have developed between the communities.

The barbecue was less a formal dialogue than a time to enjoy one another's company around a plateful of food. The smell of the barbecue moistened mouths, facilitating conversation.

Carlos "Lucci" Winborn, an African-American and one of the original founders of the group, said the event was educational for both blacks and Jews. "The Isaiah Project is in line with a personal mission of my life. I enjoy witnessing diversity actually happening.

"Our goal is to get both sides of the coin to know a lot more about each other. It is not so much about history, but current perspectives and concerns of each community," he said.

Arlen Grad, like many of the Jewish participants at the barbecue, said she "had never even heard of Juneteenth until I helped organize the Isaiah Project event last year. I know about the Jewish version of freedom, and this is a wonderful way to explore the African-American meaning of freedom."

The Isaiah Project began in 1996 during a time of heightened local tension in black-Jewish relations, triggered by anti-Semitic episodes at San Francisco State University and by the national response to an Oakland incident involving black students at a showing of "Schindler's List."

The group came together to discuss the problems and issued a statement of solidarity.

Later that year, the members rejoined to confront the multiple church burnings in the South. "We wanted to issue a statement as blacks and Jews together condemning that anywhere," Pollard said.

As the group continued to define its agenda, it approached leaders in both communities for advice.

"When we spoke to many black community leaders," Gaines said, "they were receptive to our program, but they said, `We have lots of problems. We have our youths dying in the streets. Dialogue between our communities is good but not really a priority for us.'

"For our group, we recognize that we've reached a point where we can have time for a dialogue. We realize this relationship and dialogue is a luxury. I feel it is a necessary luxury," he said.

In addition to two Juneteenth barbecues, the Isaiah Project has hosted two Passover seders and a Chanukah-Kwanzaa discussion, and has visited classes and participated in community services.

Through conversations addressing current concerns in both communities, black-Jewish relations have matured within the Isaiah Project, Gaines said.

"Now we have a relation where we can talk about difficult issues and know that at the end of the day we will still be friends because we have a trust built up.

"We don't always agree, but that is OK. This process takes years to develop," he said.

In addition to growing as a group, the alliance also helps both communities grow in independent ways

For Gaines, the experience has given him a renewed understanding of his own religious tradition.

"I've discovered more about my Judaism now than in any other time in my life," he said.

In the future, Isaiah Project leaders want to deal with the inflammatory subject of the Nation of Islam, and undertake more long-term projects such as helping inner city start-up businesses.

The black-Jewish alliance hopes to set an example for further cross-cultural dialogue.

"One of my dreams is to translate the model of the Isaiah Project to other communities," Gaines said. "So, one day, we might be able to have black, Jewish, Latino and Asian-American dialogues. I hope we can expand our circle and continue to break down cultural barriers."