Jews, Blacks Build Cultural Bridges

New York case shows progress nationwide to ease tensions between the two groups

On the streets of Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, reggae music mixes with the chants of a Hebrew holy service. Bright-colored West Indian scarves contrast with dark Jewish yarmulkes. On every corner there is evidence of two different cultures knitted together - not always cohesively.

Six years ago, the two communities collided when a black child was killed in a car accident caused by a Jewish driver. Mobs of African-Americans poured into the streets and within hours a Jewish student was fatally stabbed. Rioting ensued for four days.

Yet today the tension between the two communities has improved markedly. Quiet bridge-building has taken place that is adding a shock-absorber depth to relations between the groups - here and in communities across the country.

"Relations between Jews and African-Americans are strong," says Rabbi Marc Schneier, whose New York-based group, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, recently released a report documenting numerous acts of cooperation between Jews and blacks. "You see it from Tacoma to Tallahassee, from Los Angeles to New York, from San Francisco to Washington."

While differences clearly remain, community leaders say the healing that has emerged is substantial and often overlooked. Since the rioting in Brooklyn, for instance, the two sides have worked to erase destructive stereotypes, open lines of communication, and ease perceptions of injustice. Just how much progress has been made will become more evident this week when a civil rights trial, stemming from the rioting six years ago, is likely to conclude.

The case is a follow-up to a high-profile criminal trial held in 1992. In that case, a black teenager was acquitted of stabbing a Jewish student. In the federal civil rights trial, the same black teenager, Lemrick Nelson, has been charged with violating Yankel Rosenbaum's civil rights by killing him on a public street simply because he was a Jew.

In this trial a second black man, Charles Price, has also been charged with violating Rosenbaum's civil rights by inciting the crowd into a violent mob. A verdict could come as early as today.

No matter what the outcome, though, community officials don't expect violence. They point to unifying efforts on both sides - everything from the forming of an advisory board of local politicians to the creation of a cross-cultural children's museum exhibit.

"My sense is the city is calmer," says Rabbi Avi Weiss, director of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, a national organization based in the Bronx. "When the acquittal came down four years ago, the reaction was absolute rage. I don't sense that rage now."

In other cities, the efforts at rapprochement have often been more subtle but no less significant, observers say. Among the movements cited by The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding:

* In Norfolk, Va., an African-American/Jewish Coalition was formed after Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan made anti-Semitic remarks. The coalition, which meets regularly, plans to give financial aid to community groups and businesses.

* In Milwaukee, Wis., a newly formed African-American/Jewish Task Force sponsored a joint pre-Passover seder where Jews and blacks sang songs and shared prayers. The group also remembered the Holocaust and slavery.

* In Washington D.C., a synagogue and church have teamed up to teach a class on Exodus.

* In Los Angeles, the African-American/Jewish Leadership Connection has been meeting to discuss affirmative action, racism, and anti-Semitism.

What's so "fascinating is what has gone on at the grass-roots level," says Mr. Schneier. "People have said, 'We need to come together,' and they have."

The progress made in Crown Heights hasn't come easily. Many of the traditions of Hasidic Jews, the conservative sect that predominates in Crown Heights, keep them isolated from the outside world, including their black neighbors. Hasidic children do not watch TV or listen to popular music, for instance, which highlights cultural differences with African-American children.

In addition, there is a perception that the more organized, politically powerful Jewish leaders receive more governmental assistance for their members than the needier black community. Blacks makeup 80 percent of Crown Heights, while Jews represent only 10 percent of the population.

Indeed, problems have persisted even after the enormous outreach following the riots. Gwen Doyln Harmon, director of the Crown Heights Service Center, tells of a program begun in her office a few years ago to help the needy pay their heating bills. For a time, it was administered out of the Jewish Community Council. Then it moved back to the service center. Once it moved back, the Jewish community no longer supported it, she says.

"There's no doubt that relations between blacks and Hasidim are improved," says state Sen. Marty Markowitz, who has helped ease tensions between the two communities. "Are they at their zenith? No. It's an ongoing process."

The process of healing began shortly after the bottle throwing and looting stopped in 1991. Essa Abed, director of the Graham-Windham Neighborhood Family Service Center, was one of the first to try to bridge the gap when he formed a consortium of leaders from the two communities. Brooklyn's borough president later formed an advisory board that drafted a plan of action including cross-cultural education.

At the same time, youth workers like Richard Green were forming basketball teams and rap groups made up of blacks and Jews. Though many of the initial programs have ended, Crown Heights residents say there is a greater sense of openness. "I think we recognize the fact that people wanted to heal and bring the communities together," says Mr. Abed. "People don't really know how rich and diverse and good this community really is."

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