Face-to-face dialogue

Rekindling the Black-Jewish relationship in Cleveland

In Short

Our goal is to reinvigorate, rejuvenate and, yes, rekindle the ties between the Black and Jewish communities in order to create meaningful social change, accelerating our collective impact and increasing equity.

The American Jewish community talks a big game when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We teach our children that America’s Black and Jewish communities were strong allies, marching together in Selma and fighting for justice together on Capitol Hill. On Juneteenth, we celebrate the liberation of the African-American community, and remember the work that remains to be done for our country to truly live its values. These days, though, our two communities often work in parallel rather than in partnership, separated by both physical and spiritual segregation. Too often, our narrative of a successful historical partnership is just that: historical.

Here in Cleveland, we’re trying to rekindle that ages-old relationship and ensure that this partnership between Black Christians and white Jews is not simply relegated to black-and-white photos and small-screen documentaries, but remains vibrant, dynamic, and vital to the future success of both communities. 

The two of us — a Jewish social entrepreneur and a Black diversity and inclusion specialist — conceived of the Rekindle Fellowship to bring our communities together to engage in face-to-face dialogue and forge new relationships. Our goal is to reinvigorate, rejuvenate and, yes, rekindle the ties between the Black and Jewish communities in order to create meaningful social change, accelerating our collective impact and increasing equity. The fight for civil rights in America is not over, and in order to move the needle on these persistent issues, we need stronger collaborations with communities that are not our own. Together, we can respond to the assault on so many of our civil rights – voting rights, reproductive rights, healthcare, public education and more – more effectively than alone.

In spring of 2021, emerging leaders from Cleveland’s Black and Jewish communities came together for the first Rekindle cohort. Since then, we’ve graduated two more cohorts, with 41 Fellows having graduated the Rekindle program. Because of popular demand, we’re recruiting two cohorts (32 more Fellows) for this fall. Driven by a shared commitment to social justice and equity, mid-career Black Christian and white Jewish Clevelanders have dedicated themselves to breaking down societal barriers and joining forces to fight hate together. The pictures tell the story: people are hungry to break out of their social media bubbles and instead connect with others who don’t think, believe, act and live like themselves.

Of course, this white Jewish/Black Christian binary is overly simplistic. We know that both communities are more diverse, and we are actively recruiting Jews of color and non-Christian Black folks for future cohorts, as we want those voices represented in our discussions. We’ve started with this simple dynamic, but we’re rapidly evolving our approach. Today, we are actively seeking organizational partners that want to move beyond acknowledging the need for racial justice three times annually (during Martin Luther King Day, Juneteenth and Black History Month), and instead invest in a stronger Black-Jewish relationship all year round.

Each Rekindle cohort comprises 16 Fellows split equally between Black Christian and white Jewish participants in their mid-career, typically ages 30 to 55. The groups are gender-balanced, with a diversity of religious and political views. Each cohort meets for four three-hour sessions, amassing a total of 12 hours of intensive and structured dialogue, plus volunteer action projects outside the classroom. While together, fellows discuss tough topics like antisemitism, racism, power, privilege, Israel/Palestine and more. They also take on “Rekindle Action Projects,” which require cooperation and collaboration between fellows from individual cohorts and from our robust and growing network of alumni. 

More than just a program, Rekindle is a platform for dialogue and connection between two communities with unique strengths. Rather than one-off interactions, Rekindle is designed to forge lasting relationships that will allow for a united, coordinated response from our two communities when future acts of racism and antisemitism inevitably happen. And while fellows sometimes disagree, those disagreements are held in the context of mutual respect and civility.

We have both data and anecdotes to support our assertion that Rekindle is having a huge impact. We surveyed the 26 alumni in May 2022, and found that fellows are advocating for each other, challenging their own assumptions and addressing hatred within their own communities. We’re already seeing Rekindle graduates leverage those relationships, along with their unique strengths and assets, to organize and mobilize community members around critical issues. 

And we hope Cleveland is just the start. 

While we were excited to be selected to Slingshot’s 2022 10 to Watch List, we know the work has just begun. To make a real difference for racial and social justice nationally, we need funders and partners that want to turn our Jewish values into action. And we hope to expand outside of Cleveland with chapters hosted by diverse organizations nationally, creating a vibrant national network of allied Black and Jewish changemakers.

Our Fellows’ testimonials are clear: The relationships forged and the lessons learned through participation in the Rekindle Fellowship have the power to change not just lives but communities; not just communities but the world. 

Rekindle fellow Chris Smith put it best when he wrote, “I believe what Rekindle is doing, and what the Fellows can do together, is on the doorstep of being historic.” 

Ken yehi ratzon — may it be so. 

It’s time to stop reveling in our history, and start making it, together. 

Matthew Fieldman is a social entrepreneur and nonprofit executive living with his family in Beachwood, Ohio. His latest project is the Rekindle Fellowship.

Charmaine Rice is a diversity, equity and inclusion professional and consultant.