Last Sunday, I had the unique privilege of attending a “Black-Jewish Relations Dinner” with about twenty-five UM undergraduate and graduate students including entrepreneurs, presidents of campus clubs, and Black and Jewish students from a plethora of backgrounds. We began the evening with a truly incredible dinner – a mix of classic staples of Black “soul” food and Jewish food – with fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, collard greens, matzah ball soup, challah, Israeli salad, and so much more. As we ate this delicious food, we were paired with people we didn’t know to simply learn about each other’s stories. We delved deep into conversations exploring the commonalities that exist between our two peoples and cultures. I was paired with a senior studying Public Policy from Michigan State who is planning on attending law school after college. When I asked him what inspired this career path, he told me in quite simple terms, “I need to be ready to defend my brothers, my family, and my community from the inevitable injustices headed their way.” As a sophomore planning on studying Public Policy and going to law school myself, I was struck by the clarity and immediacy with which this man responded to my question. It’s beautiful – his passion for protecting his community – yet, it also serves as an important reminder of not only the sad state of our society that has created this need, but also, that although we share similarities because of our oppressive histories, my present reality as a white Jewish man doesn’t warrant the same vigor and need that his present reality does. As I think more and more about the connection between the Black and Jewish communities, I’ve come to an important realization. It’s not that we both experience oppression, or that we were slaves in Egypt and they were enslaved in the United States, and therefore, we need to have each other’s back; it’s that if we are to pay attention to and honor Jewish tradition, we cannot turn a blind eye to their present-day oppression. It would be wrong to claim that Jews and Blacks experience the same oppression, especially in the current moment, but we can take the lessons from our own history and apply them to supporting the Black community.
The theme of Black History Month for 2022 is “Black Mental Health and Wellness”. Mental health is a complex term with many layers because each person’s mental health is informed by their unique experiences, as well as their public perception, which for these two communities, is also quite layered. At this dinner, we discussed the role of mental health in the lives of young Black and Jewish adults, and received advice from a special guest, Dr. Clarence B. Jones (former personal counsel, advisor, and close friend to MLK Jr.). Dr. Jones spoke of the importance of committing oneself to the pursuit of excellence in order to be resilient. He talked about framing your situation in your mind so that you cannot subject yourself to the negative sentiments or perception other people might have of you. Dr. Jones said when he was one of the eight Black students at Columbia in the early 1950’s he told himself every day that he was the “baddest thing to walk the Earth”. The mirror, he said, “is one hell of a device, and every young person today, particularly young African Americans, need to look in the mirror and say ‘I am somebody and I am beautiful’”. In addition to this, Dr. Jones emphasized the importance of external support for reinforcing well-being. Through community support as well as strengthened cross-cultural Black-Jewish relations, we can build social support systems and positive environments. Black History Month does not end when February is over, nor does the theme of “Black Mental Health and Wellness”; we must strive to honor these every single day, and we can start by looking ourselves in the mirror, and saying “I am somebody, and I am beautiful”.
By Samuel Hausman-Weiss and Julia Plawker