I had the rare privilege of addressing three major African-American congregations in the Detroit area: New St. Paul Tabernacle, Third New Hope Baptist Church, and Family Victory Fellowship. I was warmly welcomed by their leaders, Bishop P.A. Brooks, Pastor E.L. Branch, and Pastors Larry and Sylvia Jordan, respectively.
Standing in these spiritual gatherings, I recalled the historic coalition between the African-American church and the Jewish state. This coalition played a key role in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, and when Jewish civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner died alongside African-American civil rights worker James Chaney in their fight for justice.
Since that tumultuous era, it has been clear that the African-American church community takes very seriously the biblical imperative to stand with Israel, and they have consistently shown through their support and prayers that Israel is not alone. In each of these churches I reminded those gathered of our rich shared history and expressed my gratitude for the strong bridges that have been built between our two communities. Tragically, this bond has been forged by a shared knowledge of bigotry and hatred.
And because of that rising hatred and anti-Semitism, I told these congregations that Israel – the one bastion of freedom and democracy in the Middle East – needs their support more than ever. It is only with a combined and concerted effort that we will be able to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, on college campuses across the U.S., and in our international media. This is why we launched our African-American Outreach last year – to foster relationships with the African-American community, to encourage cooperation between both communities on issues of shared values, and to help build support for Israel and other shared concerns.
In fact, it was an African-American pastor who, years ago, helped open my eyes to Christian support for Israel. Prior to founding The Fellowship, I was asked to lead a tour of Christians to the Holy Land. Upon arriving in Israel, I found my roommate was an African-American pastor from Virginia. Coming to Israel, he told me, had been his lifelong dream; he had saved for years to make the trip.
Still, his connection to Israel was a bit of a mystery to me. At the time I asked myself, what could we possibly have in common? The answer came on the first night of the tour. I walked into my room and found my friend praying, thanking God for the chance to see this holy land. “You only let Moses see the Promised Land,” he prayed. “You’ve let me walk in it. Thank you, God.”
The fervor and the passion of his prayer told me what I needed to know. What did we have in common? We had our shared biblical heritage, and our love of Israel. It was this experience, among many others, that led me to seek to bring together in common cause Jews and Christians, whose relationship had for far too long been characterized by animosity and division. And now it is a joy to see these bonds fostered and strengthened within the African-American Christian community. My pastor friend, I am certain, would be greatly pleased.
I, too, am pleased – by the privilege to speak to these strong communities of faith, and to continue the bridge-building work to which God called me over 30 years ago. Together, let us pray for the day when Jewish and Christian communities of all colors are free from prejudice and hatred, and when we will know God’s most precious gift of shalom, peace.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President