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CLEVELAND — Growing up in culturally diverse Shaker Heights, Ohio, the Rev. David Owens, a 48-year-old African-American, saw little interaction between blacks and Jews.
Color, creed and class differences seemed too great to overcome.
But Owens has seen a big change. His congregation, the Body of Christ Assembly Heights Church, and another black congregation, Abundant Grace Church, worship every Sunday in leased space at Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights.
And for the first time, the synagogue has invited both Christian flocks to join its Sabbath service on Saturday (Jan. 17) to mark the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We’re truly in a new day, a new way of thinking,” Owens said.
“We understand our differences,” said the Rev. Darryl Harris, pastor of Abundant Grace. “But we recognize what we share in common.”
Historically, Jews and blacks in America struggled together for civil rights. But that alliance was strained in recent decades as some leaders within the two communities clashed publicly.
In 1984, for example, Minister Louis Farrakhan accused Jews of practicing a “dirty religion,” and Jewish leaders called the Nation of Islam leader a “black Hitler.” That same year, the Rev. Jesse Jackson sparked a furor when he referred to New York City as “Hymietown.” He later apologized.
“There was ugliness,” said Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. “But I never believed the African-American community felt the way Farrakhan felt.”
Caruso acknowledged that since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Jews and blacks have lost some common ground and they need to regroup.
“There’s always been a natural connection between Jews and African-Americans,” he said. “Both have been minorities in this country and both have experienced oppression and discrimination.
“Martin Luther King stood on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and compared the African-American people to the Israelites coming out of ancient Egypt. We were slaves for 400 years, and we share with black Americans the story of coming out of slavery.”
Christian Dorsey, who is scheduled to visit Anshe Chesed to talk about “The Change We Still Need: Black and Jewish Relations in the 21st Century,” said both groups need to set aside divisive issues like support for Israel — not generally embraced by blacks — and affirmative action — not generally embraced by Jews.
“We need to work in good faith on issues we both care about,” said Dorsey, who works at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute think tank. “We can’t allow the flash-point issues to divide us.”
Issues that generally appeal to both sides include the social justice teachings of King and the message of President-elect Barack Obama about coming together and building community, Caruso said.
Nationally, 78 percent of Jewish voters voted for Obama — the highest proportion of any demographic group other than blacks.
“On the eve of the inauguration of the first African-American president and in honor of Martin Luther King, we can show how two different communities can come together and celebrate,” said the Park Synagogue’s Rabbi Joshua Skoff.
“We have a whole new generation of Jews and African-Americans. And we’re all preaching the same thing — good family values.”
“What would Martin Luther King say if he were alive today?,” he added. “He would call us to come together.”
(Michael O’Malley writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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