Art Imitates Life

I’ve got a number of responsibilities at the Federation. Among them is reaching out to members of other vulnerable and minority communities to enhance relationships between us. In the past, I’ve spoken out to console members of the African American community after the terrible mass shooting in Buffalo - it was a privilege to speak at a vigil for those who were taken by a racist and antisemitic murderer, and to offer our community’s condolences.

It has been a privilege as well to get to know Virginia ‘Ginny’ Norfleet, of the Haverstraw African American Connection over these past two years, a stalwart ally of our community, and a great educator who works in partnership with Andrea Winograd and the Holocaust Museum bringing programming that shapes and teaches tolerance to and with teens.

I don’t think I’ve accomplished as much as I could, and I’d like to do more. As the African American community celebrated Juneteenth this week, a commemoration and celebration of the day of emancipation from slavery in the last stronghold of the Confederacy, I had two thoughts, which I’d like to share.

First, as a colleague I sit with on the Mid Hudson Hate and Bias Prevention Council of the State Division of Human Rights articulated, Tolerance is not enough. Knowledge and respect are much more than that, and if we seek it from others we must freely give it in return. Even more so, it doesn’t have to have a transactional frame to it. Our neighborhoods and our communities should be places where people come together and find common interests, common needs, common solutions to a range of challenges. In Rockland we have many communities, and I look forward this coming year to further engagement and friendship, and to leveraging the relationships I do have, in places like Spring Valley, into more fulsome and outcome oriented discussions and common purpose. One shared value is an understanding of the fragility of freedom, and cultures with a common experience of the denial of freedom have plenty of ground upon which to stand together.

Second, I refuse to let politicized language and ideological movements disrespect the bonds of common sacrifice that brought the Jewish and African American communities together. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were working side by side in common cause when they were murdered by hateful bigots in Mississippi in 1964. In our time a different but much the same kind of hate and bigotry makes demands of good, honest, peace loving people to stand with them as they level blood libels and inverted morality at the Jewish community.

This past week, it appears that motives like this were behind the alteration of a mural in Haverstraw which saw the elimination of a magen david that had been planned and painted, its replacement by a less identifiably Jewish shape, and then its re-replacement-after the insistence and advocacy of Ginny Norfleet-by the originally conceived magen david. This was an attempt to politicize art, and to eliminate even a Jewish symbol from communal spaces. Many thanks to Ginny for her unshakeable friendship with the Jewish community. There is no room in our county to wrest apart two communities because of ideological demands, agendas, curricula, or intersectional allegiance. We all, in both communities, need to look beyond these attempts to divide us and hold on to that which brings us together.