The 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is occasion for Americans in general and African Americans in particular to reflect on the state of race relations in this country half-a-century later. Permit me to suggest that it would be worthwhile for Orthodox Jews in the United States to use the occasion for some reflection of our own.
With all the civil rights advances of the past 50 years, large percentages of the African American community continue to face extraordinarily difficult challenges. The prevalence of drugs and alcohol; the abject poverty; the shortage of decent education, health care, jobs and housing; the soaring rate of single parenthood and the total breakdown of traditional family values and the traditional family structure — these factors and many more feed upon one another and combine to create a combustible mix capable of exploding at any moment.
All too often we turn a blind eye to these problems of the black underclass. The problems, after all, are “theirs,” not “ours.” Don’t we have enough troubles of our own?
Our Common Interests
In truth, however, Orthodox Jews in this country share an extensive legal and social agenda with much of black America — a shared agenda that we should advance jointly whenever possible. Let us briefly consider some of the elements of that shared agenda.
Combatting Discrimination: It happens less frequently in the America of 2013 than it did decades ago, but Jews are still denied employment opportunities because of their religious identity. Orthodox Jews, whose distinctive dress, diet and Sabbath observance make them readily identifiable targets, are especially vulnerable to discrimination on the job.
Discrimination and hate exist outside the workplace as well. The media is filled with stories of anti-Orthodox (and particularly anti-chareidi) bias in contexts as diverse as the American criminal justice system, access to housing, zoning regulations designed to discourage Orthodox community growth, and vandalism of sacred Jewish sites.
Like African Americans, Orthodox Jews are victims of discrimination and hate — and we should stand shoulder-to-shoulder in seeking their eradication.
The Social Safety Net: Poverty is a fact of life for many Jewish families. Again, the problem is especially acute in Orthodox Jewish circles. The high cost of kosher food, extra expenses of yeshivah tuition and religious articles, the need to support large families, the decision in many circles to forgo postsecondary secular education — all of these contribute to high rates of poverty among Orthodox Jews.
We have a direct interest, as do other groups with significant populations at the lower end of the economic ladder, in policies designed to help eradicate poverty. If, for example, Congress acts to curtail the food stamp program, as it is threatening to do, Orthodox Jews will be severely impacted. We should make common cause with advocates for the African American underclass to protect these types of anti-poverty programs.
Promoting Educational Choice: It should not come as news that Orthodox Jews support the concept of educational vouchers and tuition tax credits. Government policies designed to alleviate the financial burdens of non-public education have long occupied a position of high priority on our agenda.
What may be news, though, is that many African American communities are now making the issue a priority of their own. The utter failure of public education in much of urban America is leading increasing numbers of frustrated parents to demand “educational choice” — governmental assistance that would enable them to enroll their children at any school they choose, including religious schools. Alliances between Orthodox Jews and urban blacks on this issue have already led to some surprisingly fruitful results, and hold great promise for the future as well.
What I have tried to articulate in this brief essay is the importance of pursuing issues of common interest with the African American community. My contention is that our own self-interest demands these steps. Orthodox Jews have a direct and substantial stake in the realization of Dr. King’s dream.
Dare I suggest, however, that self-interest is not the only consideration that demands we take an interest in the plight of the black underclass. The compassion, respect, and dignity to which each human is entitled as a tzelem Elokim regardless of his or her race, ethnic background, or social status, deserve a prominent place in our policy and advocacy calculations, right alongside our efforts to better our own lots.
Rabbi Zwiebel, Esq. is Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America