Scholarships fortify Jewish-African American links

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald

An inaugural scholarship program targeting student-leaders at St. Augustine High hopes to foster ties between the local African-American and Jewish communities.

Representatives from the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans gathered recently inside St. Augustine’s library to award scholarships of $1,000 each to three winners of a federation-sponsored essay competition: seniors Marc Barnes Jr. and Bernard Johnson, sophomore Michael Griffin II.

The schoolwide essay contest challenged St. Augustine students to reflect on what the Jewish and African-American communities might learn from two recent, racially motivated massacres: the 2015 murders of nine African Americans during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; and last October’s killing of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“Hate is hate – it doesn’t matter where it comes from or (to whom) it’s directed – but when it happens, it needs to be fought and people need to stand up,” said Jewish Federation president and CEO Arnie Fielkow, speaking at the Dec. 12 scholarship ceremony.

Fielkow noted that the Jewish and African-American communities have an impressive history of working together dating from the Civil Rights movement, when Jewish faithful and their leaders walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and other black leaders to lobby for issues such as voting rights and desegregation.

“Over the years, our communities have somewhat fractured,” Fielkow said. “It’s important for us to bring our communities back together, not only to educate our youth about the history of our communities, but to talk about ways today that we can work together.”

Father Tony Ricard, flanked by Emily Schoenbaum and Rabbi Emeritus David Goldstein, observed that the story of the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt, chronicled in the Book of Exodus, was a major source of hope to enslaved African Americans that they, too, would ultimately gain their freedom.

Scholarship’s patron bullied

The scholarships, to be awarded annually, are being funded by the Alex Schoenbaum Jewish Scholarship Fund, named in honor of the Ohio State All-American football player and founder of the Shoney’s chain of restaurants.

At the ceremony, Emily Schoenbaum, Alex Schoenbaum’s daughter and a recent New Orleans transplant, said her late father’s philanthropy focused on the role education plays in helping people of all backgrounds recognize their shared humanity.

“I think it’s vital to connect all people – it doesn’t matter what color we are. We’re all here to be good people and we all have a mission,” said Schoenbaum, noting that her father’s charitable endeavors had roots in his own experiences of discrimination as a Jew growing up in Virginia.

“His last name was ‘Schoenbaum’ – that’s all (his bullying was based on). He was a Jew,” Schoenbaum said. “Because we’ve been on this journey so long – between Mussolini and Stalin and Pharoah and Hitler – and some of the things we’re seeing today with the rise of bigotry, we understand what it’s like to be discriminated against. So, when my dad was bullied and beat up, he rose. He said, ‘I’m gonna be bigger than the next guy,’ both in his physique and also in his mind, and he worked very hard to get away from the discrimination and bigotry he experienced as a Jew in the South.”

Jews’ long history of marginalization has made them “very compassionate” toward the plight of minorities of all kinds,  Schoenbaum added.

“We want to know your community and we want you to know ours, and there’s not much of a difference between us, right?” Schoenbaum said. “We all have a beating heart; we all want to be good people; we all want to pursue our goals and our dreams. I think we’re just at the precipice of understanding where all this (recent) hate and bigotry is coming from.”

Forging relationships key

The event also featured a discussion on ways to bridge the gap between African Americans and Jews.

“It’s important for us to come together, especially when we’re at our most vulnerable,” said scholarship recipient Barnes, confessing that until he had written his winning essay, he had no idea of the common ground between the two groups. “By doing this paper, we were able to get a better viewpoint of both sides of the same story,” Barnes said.

Other ideas from the students included bringing black and Jewish youth together for recreation and resisting the tendency to become preoccupied by the problems of one’s isolated community.

“People are afraid of what they don’t know,” said Malik Washington, a St. Augustine senior. “Being black, I don’t know too much about Jewish people, but if I met somebody that was kind of like me, I could enlighten them and they could enlighten me. I feel like everybody’s either meant to enlighten your life or darken it, if you let them,” he said. “With Jews and blacks, if the fight is the same, I would like to know  more about what you’re weak at, and then help you build on your strengths.”

Father Tony Ricard, St. Augustine’s chaplain, reminded students that a “core story” uniting the two groups is that of the Jews in the Old Testa ment fleeing their Egyptian captors.

“When (our enslaved ancestors from Africa) read the story of the Exodus, what they understood was so simple. They would say to each other, ‘If God did it for (the Jews), surely he’d do it for us,’” Father Ricard said. “Our connection is so deep because our families have had that same journey.”

Schoenbaum said that while prayer is definitely important in the faith lives of both communities, Christians’ tendency to place societal problems “in God’s hands” sometimes prevents them from being as proactive as they should be.

“If we just sat in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, there wouldn’t be any Jews anymore in the world,” Schoenbaum said. “That’s why many Jews came to the Civil Rights movement on your behalf – because they could not just sit there and watch these injustices against the African Americans in the deep South.

Schoenbaum urged the teens to “Get involved! Vote! Aspire to the city council! Get busy! You can’t just sit there in your house and go, ‘God’s got this’ all the time. There’s amazing leadership in this room that we’ve heard from, and you just need to take the next step.”

From left, celebrating their reception of scholarships sponsored by the Alex Schoenbaum Jewish Scholarship Fund, are St. Augustine High School senior Bernard Johnson, sophomore Michael Griffin II and senior Marc Barnes Jr.

Paying it forward

In return for their scholarships, the three recipients will be asked to work on joint projects alongside their Jewish peers in the coming year.

In addition to the scholarship program at St. Augustine High, which elicited more than 80 essay submissions in its inaugural year, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans explores the Jewish-African American connection in a monthly radio program on WBOK 1230 AM; takes 100 Jewish and African American middle schoolers on an annual tour of civil rights sites in Alabama; and will launch a 2019 speakers’ series in conjunction with Xavier, Dillard and SUNO, exploring the connections between the two communities.

“We can do so much together, and I believe this is the beginning of that type of partnership,” Fielkow said.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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