At this Cleveland forum, Jewish and Black people discuss religion, politics and privilege

Members of Northeast Ohio’s Black and Jewish communities are teaming up to address issues of inequity in health care and other topics.

These communities are doing so through the Rekindle Fellowship, a program founded in Cleveland in 2019 by Charmaine Rice and Matt Fieldman, which brings mid-career professionals from both groups together to rebuild the historic relationship between the Black and Jewish communities. To date, 88 people have participated in the program across six cohorts with the seventh one set to begin in September.

The group is “trying to rekindle the partnership that existed during the Civil Rights movement,” Fieldman said.

To accomplish this goal, the fellowship provides a forum for both groups to better understand one another, Rice said.

“The primary objective of this program through my lens was, first of all, to create a safe space where people could come together to explore their own self-identity but also to learn a little bit more about the identities of others.”

The fellowship also provides a forum to discuss important and, sometimes, controversial topics, said Fieldman, who is Jewish.

“We create space to have conversations that you can’t have other places,” he said. “We talk about religion and power and privilege and all that good stuff.”

These topics included controversial issues such as when Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, made disparaging comments about Jews and when former Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kyrie Irving posted support for a movie promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories, he said.

Rice, who is Black, said the power of having such a forum in place was evident when her mother-in-law sat in on one of the early sessions.

“It was just such a great experience to see what that experience meant to her having a place where she felt comfortable asking questions. Just learning more about a culture that (is) so much different than her own.”

Such discussions are part of the core curriculum of the group which includes 12 hours of moderated meetings, Fieldman said. These talks address power, privilege, race and class and issues of anti-Israel and anti-Black sentiment. Topics include Black-Jewish history and how the communities overlap, the Black experience and Jews of color. There are also opportunities for cohort members to ask each other questions and a reading of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The idea is to take this greater understanding of the challenges each group faces to build relationships and work toward common goals through grant-funded action projects, they said. These “micro-projects” typically last 60 days, Fieldman said.

Projects have included a holiday food and coat drive in the Kinsman neighborhood, a community garden to beautify part of the Buckeye neighborhood, mentoring participants of Inner City Trades, a Midtown-based financial literacy and investing non-profit, working on an early voting campaign and a policing reform program. Members also helped bring Afro-Semitic Experience, a Jazz band made up of Black and Jewish musicians, to Cleveland.

While the group has yet to implement a health care project, topics such as women’s reproductive rights have come up in previous discussions and are likely to be a focus of a future project, Rice said. She added equity in quality and access to care is an important topic for participants to discuss.

“Health care and equity, it’s something that unless you yourself have experienced it or know someone very close to you who has experienced it, it’s easy to assume that most folks have access to great health care,” she said. “I hear people lament all of the time on how surprised they are at the infant mortality rate (in) the Black and brown communities right around University Hospital and Cleveland Clinic because those are world-renowned hospitals. But the reality is there are significant challenges with regard to access to health care.”

Looking ahead, Rekindle is working on three goals, starting with expanding the program to other cities nationwide. So far, a program in Newark, New Jersey. just graduated its first cohort and Livingston, New Jersey just started a cohort, Fieldman said. Also, he said Westchester and Rochester, New York are developing their own chapters as is Omaha, Nebraska.

The other two goals are to have a more engaged, active group of Rekindle alumni and to take a trip for the group to Washington, D.C. in 2024. The trip is meant to further build understanding between the groups and will include visits to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, he said.

The group will hold a retreat at the end of July to determine what it has accomplished and areas where additional focus is needed.

Regardless of the issue, Rice said there is strength in numbers.

I feel very strongly that any time you’re focusing on any type of an issue or a challenge, we’re better together.”

Fieldman agreed.

“We share far, far more than we disagree upon,” he said. “The only way to move the needle on social justice is for the smaller communities to come together and say, ‘this is what we care about.'”

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