The week of Sept. 7 was designated as the first Black-Jewish Unity Week.

What could possibly unite American Blacks and Jews? After all, Jews have attained a solid place in American society, both professionally and financially. America’s African American community, on the other hand, never freed from the history of suffering during slavery and Jim Crowism, has had to struggle to achieve even a minimum level of existence in a society marked by the evils of institutional racism.

But the voices of prophetic Judaism, urging Jewish generations for centuries to follow a teaching that asked each Jew to participate in the act of “tikkun olam,” of repairing a fractured world, have been heard time and again.

The late Rabbi Harry Sky, photographed in 1989, and the NAACP’s Gerald Talbot led a small delegation from Maine to the 1963 March on Washington. Doug Jones/Staff Photographer

Thus, from the earliest beginning of the struggle for African American civil rights, Jews have always been a part of that struggle, from the series of state-of-the-art schools for Black children across the South, built by Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck, to Jewish participation in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League. Jews were murdered and beaten during the 1960s in the struggle for Black civil rights. Jews knew that in marching with their Black brothers and sisters, they were marching for the future of their own safety and security in American society.

Since then, however, the two communities have, for the most part, moved away from that period of close cooperation. Issues such as the American Jewish focus on the security of the state of Israel; the importance of the Holocaust in American Jewish memory, and the need for African Americans to carve out their own destiny in the struggle for civil rights have become areas of disunity.

Maine has a history of such cooperation between the two communities. Blacks and Jews took part in Portland’s centenary on July 4, 1886. Among the speakers was the Rev. J.G. Wilson, representing the Abyssinian Church, one of the first Black churches in America, who spoke of a Portland past that included slavery, physical violence and religious and racial exclusion.

Barnard Aaronson, speaking for the small Jewish community of the time, could only find a positive relationship to his Christian neighbors. Yet Aaronson was more cautious about the future: “We sincerely hope nothing will occur in the future to mar the harmonious feeling now existing between the denominations … .”

The 1920s was a tumultuous decade in American and in Maine history. It marked the resurgence of the national Ku Klux Klan. Maine’s Jews, African Americans and Roman Catholics, too, suffered through a decade of Klan activities.

The noxious presence of the KKK in Maine for nearly a decade may have been the driving force behind the creation of Portland’s Interracial Fellowship of America. The group was founded in 1930 by Max Pinansky, who by the fellowship’s founding had become only the second Jew in history appointed to the bench in Maine.

Especially important in the existence of the group was the participation of Christian clergy and members of Portland’s small African American community.

In 1963, Portland’s Rabbi Harry Sky and the NAACP’s Gerald Talbot led a small delegation from Maine that attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020, in which a disproportionate number of African Americans have been infected and died, both in the United States and Maine; the mass incarceration of Black men and women, and the wanton killing of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement have exposed more than ever, the need for dramatic national change.

The growth of a violent and deadly “new anti-Semitism” has shaken American Jewry’s self-confidence in its sense of belonging.

Black-Jewish Unity Week is only a beginning. Both Blacks and Jews need to remember their historic cooperation in demanding that America live up to its promise of equality for all of its citizens.

The prophetic call for tikkun olam is once again among us.

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