Trip invigorates local efforts to strengthen ties between blacks, Jews

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Forty years after the civil rights movement, a Jewish woman and a black man sat next to each other on an Alabama bus, working together to reduce poverty and strengthen ties between Jewish and black leaders.

“We weren’t just tourists — at each stop we had speakers from a very diverse spectrum of folks from Alabama teaching us about the civil rights movement and what’s going on in Alabama today,” said Diane Fisher of San Jose.

“The point was to observe history and look at what it means for us now.”

Tony Alexander and Diane Fisher

Fisher, director of Silicon Valley’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was one of 12 people to travel to Birmingham for the 2010 African-American/Jewish Community Leaders Mission, organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Fisher traveled to Alabama with Tony Alexander, political director for San Jose’s United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 5 labor union. They were one of six Jewish-black pairs to participate in the June 20 to 24 conference, which addressed poverty and racial inequality in Alabama and in their own local communities.

“Black-Jewish relations are generally positive in the Silicon Valley, but we haven’t had enough joint engagement,” Fisher said. “This will give us a much stronger impetus to truly act together in a partnership.”

Delegates at the four-day conference discussed disparities faced by blacks and Jews and visited significant sites of the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, made famous on March 7, 1965 when armed officers attacked civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to Montgomery, the state capital.

“I had never been on that civil rights journey,” Alexander said. “It was interesting to find out the history and to talk to some of folks there about the region’s past, present and future.”

Alexander and Fisher had not worked together before the trip, but knew of each other because both do anti-poverty and labor work in the Silicon Valley.

Since the trip, they have already begun planning to ensure that Silicon Valley’s new interfaith council has more participation from black churches. Alexander, a third-generation member of Antioch Baptist Church, has deep ties in the black Christian community.

Last week, they both showed up at San Jose’s City Hall to speak out against the city’s proposal to lay off 75 janitors.

Both spoke about “not wanting the city to balance its budget on the back of the most vulnerable and lowest paid of the city,” Fisher said.

Fisher and Alexander also recently met with leaders from the Chung Tai Zen Center in Sunnyvale, who’d heard about the Birmingham trip and were interested in creating a dialogue about black-Asian relations.

“That’s been an interesting and unexpected result,” Fisher said.

Other participants came from Tucson, Ariz.; Austin, Texas; Bridgeport, Conn.; northern New Jersey and Philadelphia. Leaders from Birmingham’s black and Jewish communities also participated.

“People use the trip as a springboard for … having more active relationships in their own communities,” said Josh Protas, vice president of JCPA in Washington.

The African American/Jewish Community Leaders Mission grew out of a desire to engage in post-Katrina efforts while simultaneously building bridges between the Jewish and black communities, Protas said. The first conference happened in 2008 in New Orleans. The 2011 conference will be in Detroit.

A conference call is scheduled for later this month so participants can collectively reflect on their trip.

“We want to keep the group connected so that their shared experience can inform their ongoing work in their communities,” Protas said.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.