Montclair Jewish and African-American leaders find common cause
By REBECCA JONES
for Montclair Local
God threw Montclair a storm recently, say religious leaders. How the community responds could make itself stronger.
In spite of recent tensions following controversial remarks about the Hasidic community made by a Montclair NAACP chair, a special event held at Temple Ner Tamid Friday night revealed there is a lot more that unites the Jewish and African-American communities than divides them.
“A storm happened on Dec. 30,” said Albert Pelham, president of the Montclair NAACP, who was invited by Rabbi Marc Katz to discuss issues such as civil rights today, the legacy and future of African American and Jewish partnership, and joint responses to hate. “God always throws storms our way. The question is, will we as a community do something about it? Are we going to be stronger and more united after the storm or are we going to go back to our silos?”
The storm he is referring to is the controversy resulting from NAACP Education Chair James Harris’s remarks on Dec. 30 at a Fourth Ward meeting on Montclair development.
Harris was suspended from the organization for six months, but Katz is ready to move on from that controversy.
“It raised a lot of issues that we need to work on, but I’m hoping to move forward and work together. There’s a lot to be done,” he told Montclair Local. “The thing that bothered me the most was the discourse online. A lot of my worst fears of people’s racist attitudes emerged. I’m less concerned with officials than people in the wider community.”
Hosting Friday’s special MLK event at Temple Ner Tamid was Katz’s attempt to start an open, civil and constructive dialogue about race and ways to move forward and work together as allies in problems such as the affordable housing crisis in Montclair.
Katz began the conversation with Pelham with a discussion of the story of Exodus, a story with deep meaning for the Jewish people and one that meant a lot to Dr. King as well. Having faced similar forms of discrimination in this country, Jewish people went to great lengths to fight for African-American civil rights in the 1960s. Katz said,
“I think we sometimes pat ourselves on the back because we marched together in Selma,” but points out the need for a renewed alliance.
In Pelham’s view, the problem today is that we’re all in our own silos. “Back in the Civil Rights movement, Black and Jewish people worked together. They gave their lives. They were committed. We have zero commitment these days,” he told those gathered. “When you look back to things like the Montgomery bus strikes, people protested for 13 months in the deep south facing dangers such as lynching. Today, we can’t even protest for 13 minutes. We put something up on Facebook, then we move on.”
The country is more divided than ever right now, and with the lack of leadership nationally, Katz said, “we need to double down locally.”
Pelham agreed. When it comes to the problems facing African-American communities right now, he’s less interested in big things like reparations that could drag out a long time. “I’d rather focus on what’s happening locally,” he said, “small victories over huge things.” His main concern is for people facing eviction in Montclair, people who can no longer afford to live in Montclair.
“This town used to be split by race,” Pelham said. “Now it’s economics. For the poorest people in this community, they haven’t had a supermarket for five years. People are concerned about historical preservation while people don’t have a supermarket. We have people living on Mission Street. Last year they were paying $900 in rent. This year they are paying $1,200. We are actually losing funding for our schools because we have less families qualifying for free and reduced lunch.”
Temple Ner Tamid member Jane Raitt voiced frustration with talk over action on the issues. “We want to help, but I don’t think we know how to. All this talk about what we ought to do . . . do what?”
Pelham suggested that people can come out to the Tenant’s Association Meetings. Rabbi Katz added, they can talk to people they know, talk to landlords.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville added that many people have reached out to her asking how they can help. “We’ve had lawyers, writers, people in the media saying ‘your story should be told’. We are grateful to those who stepped up and said this what I do, how can I help?”
Housing co-chair William Scott, who helped form the Tennant’s Association and is a Montclair landlord, added, “There are 50 houses of worship in this town. If we get together, we can make a difference.”
Dr. King was a religious leader and an effective agent of social change. Pelham said change requires commitment, perseverance and activism.
“If we really want to be the kind of community we talk about, we have to get our feet on the ground. We have to get off the Watercooler and start doing something. If we don’t, the Montclair we know is not going to be the Montclair we know anymore.”