Jewish Center Exhibit Intended to Spark Reflection, Learning
By Wendy Greenberg
Designed to encourage examination of and reflection on our attitudes and biases, “Black + Jewish: Connection, Courage, Community,” an exhibit coming to The Jewish Center Princeton September 17 to October 31, explores the history of Black and Jewish relationships. Three talks accompany the exhibit.
Created at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University (in Kennesaw, Ga.), “the panels bring to light selected events in the long history of the American Jewish and African American communities in order to educate, provoke, raise questions, and prompt discussion,” said Linda Oppenheim, a community activist leading The Jewish Center’s planning team.
The material can be uncomfortable, she cautioned. “If some of the material makes the visitor uncomfortable, we hope that they will use that moment to step back and think about how information and images provided by media, school curricula, and other sources have influenced the formation of their attitudes and biases and allow themselves to experience a different understanding,” she said.
The Kennesaw exhibit was developed and curated by Adina Langer, who is from the Princeton area. The exhibit’s 10 panels cover European immigration and the Great Migration, the arts, education, World War II, violence against Jews and African Americans, the civil rights movement, and the current experience of African American Jews. Along with three accompanying lectures and supplementary materials, the exhibit is designed to spark reflection and conversation about the rich histories of the African American and American Jewish communities and their relationship to one another, said Langer in an email. The Museum of History and Holocaust Education has produced exhibitions with grant funding from the Breman Foundation of Atlanta, whose mission is, in part, to develop projects combatting antisemitism and promoting diversity.
The project proposal explains that “both the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests for racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 have called attention to deep fissures in American society, systemic inequities especially reflected in the differing experiences of Black and white people in their encounters with institutions ranging from law enforcement to medical care.”
It is also important, the proposal notes, to recognize that Black and Jewish identities may intersect. Percentages vary by study, but estimates range from six percent to 13 percent of Jewish people identifying as “Jews of color.”
Langer said she is “very excited to see the exhibition come to Princeton. My parents have been members of the Princeton Jewish Center since the late 1980s, and I basically grew up there, attending nursery school, having my bat mitzvah there, and continuing through confirmation. I’m humbled by the enthusiasm and attention to detail with which Linda Oppenheim and the organizing team has approached the Princeton Jewish Center’s hosting of the exhibition, and I’m excited that it will also be on display at Adath Israel and Beth El.”
The exhibit will be at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville November 1 to November 29, and Congregation Beth El in East Windsor November 29 to December 18.
The Jewish Center planning committee has expanded on the material and brought in local connections.
“These rich histories cannot be fully contained in 10 panels,” said Oppenheim, so the team created additional information and questions for visitors to engage with, found on laminated information sheets next to the panels.
“The lynching panel focuses on Leo Frank, although lynching was predominantly violence visited on African Americans. We have arranged for one of the jars of soil from the one documented lynching site in New Jersey — of Samuel Johnson on March 5, 1886 in Eatontown — that was dedicated on June 19, 2022, to be on display as part of the exhibit. It wasn’t only in the South that there was violence against Black people,” Oppenheim noted.
“Because Kennesaw is close to Atlanta, the exhibit has an Atlanta emphasis,” Oppenheim said. “We tried to add information from our personal experiences. One planner grew up in Atlanta and another lived in Marietta where Leo Frank was lynched. The father of another congregant, Miki Mendelsohn, owned a clothing store in Fayetteville, N.C. Miki interviewed one of the African American employees in the store, a man, who in his career became head of human resources for a company, about his memories of working in the store and his relationship with Miki’s father.”
In the last two years since George Floyd’s death, there have been reading and discussion groups at the synagogue and in other area organizations, said Oppenheim. She hopes the exhibit will be taken in a broader context, and that the two rich histories will be seen not totally from a white perspective.
Three lectures are planned for The Jewish Center exhibit. In a Zoom lecture September 19, at 8 p.m., Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish studies and social responsibility at San Francisco State University, will give a talk titled “1619, 1654, 2022: Jews, Race, and U.S. History.”
Dollinger will share documents from his American Jewish History Primary Source Reader co-edited with Gary Zola, for “a candid, and probably difficult, journey through American Jewish history exploring Jews and racism,” said Dollinger. “It is intended for groups ready to dive deep into the ways that white Jews have succeeded in America because of institutional racism. With our national reckoning on race, so many American Jews are reflecting on systemic racism and ways we may be able to help. We will think about how racism has informed what is means to ‘become American’ over time and place. Ultimately, we’ll take a new look at how we have remembered (or mis-remembered) the American Jewish past.”
“I hope my talk will open people up to hear competing narratives,” Dollinger said. “One such narrative is that of Jews of color, who talk about the racism they experience when they go into white organizational spaces.”
Dollinger holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University. He is author of four scholarly books in American Jewish history, most recently Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing The Alliance in the 1960s, and lived in Princeton for a year as research fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion.
On Sunday, October 2, at 4 p.m., Langer, curator at the Kennesaw Museum of History and Holocaust Education whose students put together the exhibit under her direction, will talk on Zoom about “Creating the Black + Jewish Exhibit.” She will give insight and details into how and why it came into being and be available to answer questions.
The third speaker, on November 9 starting at 7 p.m., is the Hon. John Withers II, who was a high school classmate in South Korea of congregant Wilma Solomon. Withers will talk about his book, Balm in Gilead: A Story from the War, in which he recounts his father’s experience in an all-Black quartermaster company in Europe, during and immediately following World War II, which took in two young Jewish men, survivors of Dachau.
Oppenheim pointed out that traditionally, Jews have been taught about heroes, “but questions remain: have white Jews succeeded because of white privilege, and has that blocked others from succeeding? We are broadening the perspective. If we don’t do that the country can’t move forward.”
The exhibit will be available for viewing at The Jewish Center, 435 Nassau Street, from September 17 to October 31, Tuesday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. except on Jewish holidays. The exhibit and all programs are free. To register for a Zoom link, schedule a docent tour, or get additional information, contact Linda Oppenheim at firstname.lastname@example.org.