Building Bridges

By Jacob Markey

On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2019, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Jewish Volunteer Center hosted a program for Jewish teens to engage and learn about the legacy of Dr. King. Speakers from the community stressed his message of equality, and the teens left energized. While the program was a success, a speaker from the NAACP challenged us to think about how to further engage teens in cross communal, ongoing dialogue, rather than through a one-off event.

Having already been in conversation about the potential for collaboration between our young adults, what emerged was a program between Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council and the Miami-Dade Branch of the NAACP called Teens Advocating Together. It convened students from the Black and Jewish communities for monthly programming to develop their leadership and advocacy skills, volunteer, and ultimately lobby elected officials in Tallahassee on issues of their choosing.

Reflecting on the successful conclusion to the first year of the program during the beginning stages of the second, what becomes clear is how the initiative encapsulates some basic principles of community relations. It demonstrates the importance of building relationships outside of the Jewish community, especially during a time of great uncertainty in our country and our renewed focus on issues of racial justice.

Building relationships requires time

Creating a new program, especially one that brings together different communities with their own values and priorities, was intense and time-consuming. Each session was the result of ongoing conversations that sought to find common ground and would appeal to teens in both the Black and Jewish communities. Patience was necessary to let the process play itself out. While this seems obvious, emphasizing the long-term impact was crucial with community members who might question an investment of time and energy without a potential immediate payoff. Although some fruits of Teens Advocating Together were immediate – including the tangible skills the teens learned – the long-term impact will be felt by the seeds that were planted, the conversations participants will continue to engage in for years into the future and the strengthening of the relationship between the NAACP and Federation.

Building new relationships often relies on leveraging existing relationships

Some of my previous work has been with teens and young adults, but I am far from an expert. I also have very limited experience in creating programming outside of the Jewish community. However, my colleagues and partners do, and leveraging existing resources in the Jewish and Black communities led to much success. JCRC relied on Jewish communal partners to help recruit teens, while my program partner with the NAACP tapped into its Youth Council for participants. A JCRC volunteer leader and professional mediator led a class on discerning leadership styles and working with others, Miami’s Repair the World Executive Director led a session on Jews in the civil rights movement and the President of the Miami-Dade Branch of the NAACP connected us with an activist who engaged the teens on gun violence prevention. Each presenter offered his or her strengths and knowledge and led programming that resonated with the teens. Leveraging these strong existing relationships allowed us to gain program liftoff, while adding strength and depth to the sessions.

Building relationships requires active listening and mutual understanding

Without a doubt, the focus on Israel and anti-Semitism are the priorities for community relations work (and Israel-related work is my passion), but we must also focus on the needs of the community at large, especially today. It is not enough to ask other communities to stand with us on our core interests or during our times of need. We must listen intently to their needs to be true partners. By building deep, long-lasting relationships over the course of years, such as through programs like Teens Advocating Together and holding complex conversations that lead to mutual understanding, we are in a better position to work through crises, large and small. We can best collaborate on initiatives and advocacy efforts that uplift and strengthen both communities.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

While the program took time and effort, the successes far surpassed the challenges. The advocacy trip in Tallahassee, taken only weeks before offices began to close due to COVID-19, was energizing and eye-opening for the teens (we met with more than half a dozen state legislators and Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner, witnessed proceedings from the House Gallery and teens made their voices heard). Teens engaged in constructive dialogue, modeling for friends and family behavior that is too often missing during this turbulent year. And remember the 2019 MLK Day of Service? The January 2020 MLK Day of Service brought over 170 participants together from the Jewish AND Black communities. Learning and engaging with the words of Dr. King was not done in the silo of the Jewish community, but rather with our brethren in the area. As a result of this work, relationships between the Black and Jewish communities in Miami are deeper than they were before.

As issues of racial justice remain at our country’s forefront, this kind of initiative is as important as ever. We stand stronger when we stand together. The more that we can engage and build relationships with communities around us, better is the chance that we will advance the values that we hold dear.

Jacob Markey is the Assistant Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.