A Jewish Response to Racial Tensions: Harriet Tubman

Image: NMAAHC, Library of Congress

By Ezra Friedlander

In neighborhoods where two of the most persecuted peoples in all of history live side-by-side, harmony and mutual appreciation should be a given. The historic relations between the Orthodox Jewish Communities and African-American Communities of Brooklyn have admittedly fluctuated in this measure. However, while there have been reasons for strife on both sides, now is not the time for blame; rather it is the time for action.

Mutual understanding and appreciation is the first step in this process. As an Orthodox Hasidic Jew, Harriet Tubman is a relatable character that can act as the foundation of this understanding. Through the lens of a Moses like-character, to which she has often been likened by those in the African-American community, educational material and sessions in the Orthodox Community surrounding Harriet Tubman and slavery would be the optimal breaking-ground to begin such reconciliation programs. 

As the bicentennial of Harriet Tubman’s birth approaches us in March 2022, it is an auspicious time to educate through her history to foment change for the greater good. 

Luckily, Harriet Tubman’s heroic life is common knowledge for many Americans. “Many” is quite an accomplishment, but it is no where near enough. Harriet Tubman was born into an enslaved family and suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of her oppressors. She escaped slavery at the age of 27 and returned to free not only her family but many others. She was often likened to Moses by those in her community, highlighting their shared strives in freeing their peoples from the bonds of slavery.

Harriet Tubman herself is reported to have even invoked Moses’s name in song while leading her escaped brethren in the Underground Railroad. At the onset of the Civil War she began covert intelligence operations for the Union, connecting with slaves in order to reveal Confederate war plans. In the heat of war in 1863, she led the Combahee Ferry Raid in which she successfully liberated over 700 slaves. This is recorded as the first American military operation led by a woman, foreshadowing her dedication to the Suffragette Movement. 

Hate is the deformed byproduct of ignorance. To ensure our joint communal safety and prosperity we must educate ourselves on the struggles our neighbors have encountered. There is no better way to learn than to relate the new information to information close to our communal heart and deeply ingrained in communal memory. For this reason, we in the Jewish Community must fulfill our obligation to learn about and love our quite literal neighbors through a figure our community can easily understand: Harriet Tubman. 

The time has come when we must educate the Yiddish speaking populations and the Jewish community at-large of the trials and tribulations our African-American neighbors have endured. We must produce adequate Yiddish and English language materials in order to do so: an unprecedented project of societal acquaintance. Learning her history should not only be completed in order to fulfill an American History requirement.

Additionally, Harriet Tubman was a religious woman. She appreciated the values and lessons of the Bible and used them as inspiration for her actions. This makes her an even more relatable individual to our community. In fact, she is so highly revered by her community that she is often also likened to Miriam the prophetess. The African-American community has compared her leadership of slaves to freedom in song as Miriam led the Israelites from Egyptian slavery to freedom in song. Historians point to evidence of Harriet’s religious upbringing influencing her so deeply as to compel her to act, risking her life in the name of her people and G-D.

Her story may not only serve as inspiration for how to treat our fellow humans who may not look as we do, but also as how we should truly be inspired by our beliefs and morals to the point of full devotion to improving what we can in this world. 

While I frame this call to action in a format tailored for the Jewish community, it should prove as a foundational structure required in many of our diverse communities in New York City and across the nation. Harriet Tubman is such an ideal role-model because of her bravery choosing to re-enter hostile territory to save others despite the risk of enduring more of the same tremendous suffering she experienced in her youth.

Many of numerous communities in New York City were built and flourished by the hands of heroes who too overcame terrible suffering to save the lives of others and build the vital community infrastructures that allow us all to live our current lifestyles. 

Ultimately, while understanding and appreciating the struggles and accomplishments of our neighbors is exceedingly important, achieving an in-depth understanding of the history of this nation (of which we are certainly a part) and its implications on modern life is the end goal.

As we grapple with the racial tensions plaguing our nation and as we desire a better solution than simply allowing the status quo to endure, it is vital we do our part in manifesting a better world absent of such hate. As humans our reaction to our fellow human’s yearning for equality and yearning for justice should resound within us. As Americans who inherit a beautiful nation designed to pursue justice, this should not just resound within us, it should push us to action.

As many anecdotes about New York City go, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. Let us make an example in Brooklyn, an example for the world of how to treat our fellow humans.

Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group (www.TheFriedlanderGroup.com) a public policy consulting group based in NYC and Washington, DC.