“Diversity United” Seeks to Build Bridges Across Newark

Photo credit: Eric Freedman

October 31, 2021—Congregation Ahavas Sholom, in partnership with the City of Newark, has launched a monthly public forum to build bridges between the city’s diverse faith, ethnic and racial communities, and unite them to work together for a just, anti-racist society.

The year-long program — “Diversity United” — was the idea of Eric Freedman, President and CEO of Congregation Ahavas Sholom, the city’s oldest and only remaining synagogue in the city. The synagogue, whose congregation is comprised of members whose families came from Iran, Belarus, West Africa, Ukraine, Jamaica, Poland, Sudan, and Lithuania, is passionately committed to community engagement as part of its mission to repair the world (Tikun Olam) and to fight for social justice (Tzedakah).

I first met Eric, who also is co-founder of the Jewish Museum of New Jersey (JMNJ), when he contacted me at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. He wanted to explore with us the possibility of joint programming for a first-ever exhibition and musical series, focusing on the cultural intersections of Jews and African-Americans through jazz.

“Jazz, Jews and African-Americans: Cultural Intersections in Newark and Beyond” was successfully launched several months later. The exhibit explored the relationships among Jews and African-Americans in the performance, production and promotion of jazz, and their interactions and influences in creating this genre of music.

Eric joined together with other civic leaders in Newark to organize a very successful project, which forged new ground in the areas of neighborhood outreach; museum programming; cultural arts; community and media partnerships, as well as community engagement.

When I heard about “Diversity United,” I reached out to Eric to learn more about Congregation Ahavas Sholom’s current program so that I could share the information with readers of Arts & Culture Connections. 

Donna Walker-Kuhne: What was the genesis of “Diversity United?”

Eric Freedman: During the pandemic, like many people, I stayed home and watched television. It was while watching the news that I saw the video of the murder of George Floyd. I was distraught. It also was my awakening to systemic and institutional racism. It was painful watching the news and realizing how little I knew about racism; how little I understood its nuances.

After the murder of George Floyd, I began researching systemic racism. I worked with my cousin, who is the co-director of the social justice program at Vanderbilt University’s Law School. For example, I was not aware of the connection between the slave trade of 1619 and the prison pipeline that impacts Black people today. I learned about reparations and for the first time understood the connection to the slave trade.

I also learned about the impact of the Confederacy and Jim Crow laws, and how those laws continue to reverberate in communities of color.

As the last synagogue in a predominantly Black and Brown city, I knew we had to do something concrete to contribute to change in the community; something concrete to show that we cared.

Donna: What is your vision for the program?

Eric: This is a year-long program, and our focus is to discuss and deepen our understanding of systemic racism. In many ways, “Diversity United” is a book club, with participants viewing films, documentaries or reading books, articles or other materials before each of the monthly meetings. The panelists lead the discussions.

This is our time to listen, learn and engage. I don’t want to just hear about the topic, I want and need to know what action steps I can take. I don’t always understand all of the issues—that’s why this program seeks to educate people. But we also want to inspire them to take action.

Donna: How did you decide what topics to explore?

Eric: I reached out to Newark City leaders, including former Newark City Council President and long-time community leader Mildred Crump, as well as to Rabbi Capers Funnye, and the Rev. Steffie Bartley for input. They all participated in the inaugural program in March. I also am grateful to civic leaders like Larry Hamm and Ryan Haygood, who have been demonstrating action steps that can be taken.

The social issues being explored by “Diversity United” include mass incarceration, education, housing, healthcare, environmental justice, poverty, Jim Crow, and public monuments—all from the viewpoint of the 401 years of systemic inequalities that have been a part of American history.

We have had eight programs so far and the topics have included: “Inequalities in the Arts: The Great White Way and Beyond;” “The Misuse of Science and Genetics in the Discussion of Race;” “Black Churches—Black Synagogues: Religion, Community, and the historic role of Houses of Worship in the African American Community,” and

“Juneteenth through the Eyes of Jews of Color: Sharing Stories and Perspectives.”

We also screened the Ava DuVernay documentary, 13th, followed by a discussion about the impact of racism.

Donna: Why do you feel that it’s important that Congregation Ahavas Sholom take the lead on this project?

Eric: Following the murder of George Floyd, I attended several suburban-held, racial justice programs that were one-offs. The presentations were given by suburban, conservative and orthodox Rabbis. I was there because I knew I had a moral obligation to stand up and do something. But after those programs, I felt I needed more; I needed to do more.

I also knew that many Jewish people and white people don’t have family who grew up in the South and so their understanding of the dynamics of segregation and institutional racism has been limited or unclear.

Without understanding systemic racism, when we see the murders of Black men by police, for example, we think it’s an isolated incident. I believe I have a responsibility, as do the Jewish community and white people, to understand and learn how we can transform our communities. We also need to understand how systemic racism impacts white people.

This is the time for expanding our understanding, building bridges, and taking collective action. I realized that this program also could foster white allyship.

Donna: Thank you, Eric.

For readers of Arts & Culture Connections interested in learning more, you can contact Eric, cahavassholom@optimum.net. As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below.

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