By Julie Sherman
While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the face of the '60s Civil Rights era, less remembered are the Jewish leaders who backed his efforts at racial equality and harmony, who walked with him in Selma, who spoke with him at the March on Washington, and who even presided over the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
On Sunday, January 24, the 2021 Edward S. Finkelstein Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival opens with a special virtual screening of Shared Legacies: the African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance, a film that shines a light on the relationship between the African-American and Jewish communities during that turbulent time.
Interviews with the men and women who lived the history – among them Andrew Young, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Harry Belafonte, Michael Berenbaum, Janice Rothschild Blumberg, and Sherry Frank – highlight a bond of support and respect rooted in recognition of a shared history of persecution and “other-ness.” African-American spirituals routinely referenced the Bible and the Jewish experience of slavery. Just twenty years after the Holocaust, American Jews and Jewish émigrés from Europe identified with the suffering of - and the extraordinary violence inflicted upon – the American Black community while the greater public looked on in silence.
It was very much in that spirit that the alliance gained energy – that, and the rise, in that one moment in history, of commanding spiritual and civic leaders in both the Jewish and African-American communities who came together, proved to be of one mind, and formed a “coalition of conscience” that compelled the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.
Shared Legacies also chronicles the fraying of this same alliance in the wake of Dr. King’s death, and, four years later, that of theologian and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Heschel, King’s good friend who had walked side by side with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and whose call for “a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice” had rallied American Jews to the civil rights cause.
But the film is far more than just a history lesson. As “dog whistles” foment hate in our country, and overt acts of anti-Semitism and violence toward black Americans continue to rise, Shared Legacies: the African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance is an urgent call for repair and reconnection between our communities, despite obstacles to re-establish common ground.
The film will stream for 72 hours, beginning on Sunday, January 24th. On Monday evening, January 25th, the Festival will host a virtual panel discussion about the picture and the issues it raises, with Rabbi Ariana Capptauber of Beth El Temple; Reverend Earl Harris, President of the Interdenominational Ministers Conference of Greater Harrisburg; and Doctor Susannah Heschel, Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, and daughter of Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Jeanette Krebs will moderate.
Sponsored by Conrad and Gail Siegel, Shared Legacies is a free event, but registration at the Festival website (www.hbgjff.com) is required to access the film, as well as to attend the panel discussion. Our community partners for Shared Legacies are Black Wall USA and Progressive Jewish Voice.
On Sunday, February 14th, the 27th Festival season begins in earnest, as a fully virtual, five-week film series modeled on our last virtual outing this past summer. Check out our website for information about all of the movies, and to pre-purchase your all-access pass or tickets for individual films.
More information about the 2021 virtual Film Festival series will be available in the coming weeks. Watch this space, your Federation emails, and the Film Festival website for details.