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Black, white Jews unite to honor King

A black rabbi from St. Albans visited a white Forest Hills temple Sunday to broaden the dialogue on what it means to be a Jew and to salute the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for equality for all.

The Sunday event brought together Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, the spiritual leader of Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation in St. Albans, and Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter of the Reform Temple of Forest Hills to talk about race within the Jewish community. The discussion at the Reform Temple at 71-11 112th St. attracted more than 60 people from both congregations.

“Internationally there are many black Jews,” Levy said. “But by being black, one’s Jewishness is constantly questioned. People don’t know you are talking as Jews or people don’t see you as part of the same community.”

But, he said, people have to remember that Moses’ wife was black and the Torah describes the Jews who left Egypt as a diverse group of people. Levy said there are Jews of various races all over the world.

The event was organized to honor King and all he did to improve race relations in America. Both rabbis and members of the congregations pointed out there were many northeastern Jews who were very active in the civil rights movement and strong supporters of King.

Levy, a black sociology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and the leader of the St. Albans Temple, followed in his father’s footsteps when he became a rabbi. His father was one of the leaders of the black Jews of Harlem.

“Race is irrelevant,” said Perelmuter. “Judaism should transpose race.”

Following up, Levy said if Moses or Abraham were brought into modern times and asked to comment on race and the different skin colors of Jews, each would have difficulty answering because skin color did not define their religious beliefs.

Levy said his parents were called to Judaism because they wanted to reclaim the religion their ancestors lost when Christianity was thrust upon them during slavery.

“It is on a spiritual level that I have been called by God to the community,” Levy said. “You have to feel it within yourself.”

The majority of the American Jewish population, which is white, automatically thinks he said that a person who is Jewish must look like them. What these people have failed to realize, Levy said, is that living in Europe and intermarrying for the past 2,000 years has lightened their skin color.

When questioned about how he and his congregation fit into the black community at large, he said he is first defined by race, then gender and finally religion.

“Our Jewishness is never questioned by other black people,” Levy said. “They are just as curious as white Jews.”

One audience member, an Ethiopian Jewish man who had immigrated to Israel and now lives in Geneva, Switzerland and works with other Ethiopian Jews, said he could never understand why in America the talk about Jews and race always focuses on black and white.

“Forget about the color bar,” he said. “The God of Israel is not about this.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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