Sharing a sanctuary, forging a bond

Sharing a sanctuary, forging a bond

B’nai Abraham’s Juneteenth program brings Blacks and Jews together

Reverend Dr. David Jefferson Jr., left, and Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg
Reverend Dr. David Jefferson Jr., left, and Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg

In a more innocent world, the Juneteenth celebration Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston is planning for June 21 would be no big deal.

The synagogue’s Friday night service will honor Juneteenth, the federal holiday, established in 2021, that commemorates the final official end of slavery in 1865, when the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced in Texas. (Abraham Lincoln wrote the proclamation in 1863; news traveled slowly then, particularly when the recipients didn’t want it.)

B’nai Abraham has invited the Reverend Dr. David Jefferson Jr., associate pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church of Newark, who also teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, to speak and sing at services. Shabbat dinner will follow. It will be catered by Kai Campbell, an extraordinary Newark native who has combined passions for food and social justice, bound together by love.

This Shabbat did not grow out of a dutiful sense of box-checking for a civic holiday, nor a pro forma understanding of the Right Thing To Do. It’s the result of a genuine friendship between the Rev. Jefferson and the shul’s Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg, forged at a group, the Black and Jewish Understanding Project, which has been carefully assembled through the auspices of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Archie Gottesman’s Edison Properties Foundation.

“I had the pleasure of meeting David as the result of being invited into a group that is intended to bring Blacks and Jewish individuals together, so that we can build our community together,” Rev. Jefferson said. “After a strategic initiative, NJPAC brought a group together for the Black and Jewish Understanding project. It’s a yearlong engagement; from December to June; leaders in the Black and Jewish communities have dinner together and talk about books and films that speak to our challenges, and to expose ourselves to ideas, and to individuals we can partner with.

“David and I got together through the dinner dialogue series,” he said. “We created a relationship.”

Rev. Jefferson spoke at a screening of “Tree of Life,” a documentary about the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh in 2018. “I asked David how I could partner with him in a greater way, and David said that we should do something to celebrate Juneteenth on erev Shabbat.

“We talked about a program to bring my ministry and David’s together. Instead of constantly talking about it, we decided to create a program of love and joy. We call it a liberation celebration; we honor the liberation of our Jewish brothers and sisters, and they honor our liberation.”

Rev. Jefferson is at home in synagogues and around Jews. “I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Randolph,” he said. “We were the only Black family there. My dad is a Baptist preacher — I’m third generation — and he built ministries in Newark and Elizabeth. I was invited into the homes of Jewish individuals because of my friendship with them. Yes, there were some who weren’t nice to me — but there are some Black people who don’t like me either.

“I went to bar and bat mitzvahs, Shabbat dinners, and seders. My family was invited into Jewish homes. So my rearing and background was among Jews.”

Rev. Jefferson left Randolph to go to Morehouse College, and then to Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s now the acting director at Kean University’s Center for Africana Studies, and this spring he co-taught a course at Fairleigh Dickinson called “One God, Three Paths” with Rabbi Ezra Weinberg and Imam Muhammad Hatim.

Reverend Jefferson also has career as an actor and singer. “I’m a former screen actor, and I’ve been in over 10 films, including ‘Remember the Titans’ with Denzel Washington,” he said. “I went to L.A. Film School, and I started a production company. And I’ve sung professionally at Lincoln Center, at NJPAC, all around the country. I have a lot of music on Apple Music and YouTube. I do praise and worship music, and jazz. I’m an inspirational singer. And I am a radio host; my show is called ‘Community to Community’ and it’s on 94.7 Audacy.

Rev. Jefferson is at the inaugural launch of Kean’s Center for African Studies in February.

“So my background brings me to a place where I can see the importance of not just being a talking head, but actively showing what we can do to push the hate out.”

How does he do all that? “In Greek, there is something called Kairos time,” he said; as opposed to the normal chronological time that governs most of our lives, Kairos time is an intense time-out-of-time that is the right time.

“And I come from a multitasking background,” he added. His father is a preacher; “he’s also a lawyer. This work is my calling. The ministry is a vocation. The time works itself out, and when the moment comes, we adhere to it.”

“I have always been on a quest for love, not for hate,” he continued. “My world has always been made better for being exposed to the culture and the relationships I have had with my Jewish friends and neighbors.”

That means that “when you even say the date October 7, my stomach hurts,” Rev. Jefferson said. “It’s like saying April 4, 1968,” when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “It has changed my perspective.” It has, among other things, made him more aware of the need for government funding to protect houses of worship; he remembers the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where “a lunatic with a gun” killed nine worshippers, just because they were Black.

“The answer is not just marching in the streets,” Rev. Jefferson said. “Look at Dr. King’s model. He created legislation.”

He is participating in B’nai Abraham’s Juneteenth program “because David is a kindred spirit,” he said, and the animating question is “how do we bring communities together without being forced?”

Rabbi Vaisberg agrees that his friendship with Rev. Jefferson is the impetus for the program and that relationships have developed from the dinner and dialogue program at NJPAC, which is “the brainchild of John Schreiber,” NJPAC’s president and CEO, “and Archie Gottesman,” the cofounder and CEO of JewBelong, through the Edison Properties Foundation. “The Juneteenth program wasn’t my idea,” Rabbi Vaisberg said. “The JCRC” — that’s the Jewish Community Relations Council — “reached out to us. We were their first choice, and we said yes immediately.

“That’s at least in part because B’nai Abraham has a long history of social justice activism, going back to when it was in Newark and led by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the German-born lifelong fighter against discrimination, no matter against whom it was aimed.”

Rabbi Vaisberg is excited about both Rev. Jefferson’s participation — not only will he speak and sing, but he also will bring members of his church to the service — and the dinner that will follow.

The chef who will create it, Kai Campbell, a third-generation Newark native, University of Virginia graduate, and former city economist, oversees an eclectic group of restaurants, all deeply tied to his city’s past, present, and future. His first venture was Burger Walla, which, as its name implies, serves hamburgers that are influenced by Indian cuisine. He also owns Bragman’s Delicatessen, which has become Newark’s oldest Jewish deli, and the Yard, an American restaurant inside the city’s Military Park.

Ms. Gottesman decided to support the Juneteenth program because “I think that the Jewish community now is at a time when allyship is important, and our allies are far less vocal and energized than most Jewish people expected them to be.”

There are two possible reactions to the situation, she said. “One is to be mad and complain about it. And the other is to do something about it.” To be realistic, she added, “we can do both.”

The program at B’nai Abraham is built on the Black and Jewish Understanding Project at NJPAC, and that was created to provide “the chance to do more than just to talk. It’s to create community. I know that it’s difficult to have real conversations — that was true even before October 7 — but we have to get through it. We’ve had to get through hard things before; sometimes, when you do that, in the end you have real friendships.

“When people go through challenging things and come out the other side, they’re usually better than they were before, because they built something. There is trust built in listening to each other’s stories and understanding them.”

It’s important to be realistic, she said. “At one of the first meetings of the first cohort” — Rev. Jefferson and Rabbi Vaisberg are in the second — “a historian there said that everyone likes to talk about the good old days, when the Black and Jewish communities were so close. Dr. King and Abraham Joshua Heschel. But things weren’t perfect then either. People are people. It’s not as if everyone went and had dinner together. No; the Jews had dinner with the Jews, and Black people had dinner with other Black people. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to talk about the good old days, but it’s not the way human beings work.

“The good old days weren’t perfect. No one ever is perfect. We aren’t trying to replicate perfection. We’re trying to make things better.”

In an email, NJPAC’s John Schreiber also is enthusiastic about the Juneteenth program. “The fact that the vital work of The Black/Jewish Understanding Project is reaching beyond NJPAC is an indicator of how necessary its work is — and a testament to the power of dialogue,” he wrote. “All of us at NJPAC see bringing the communities we serve into conversations with each other as a central part of our mission. I applaud Rabbi Vaisberg and Rev. Jefferson — and their faith-based communities — for uniting and honoring Juneteenth together.”

Who: Rabbi David Vaisberg, the Reverend
Dr. David Jefferson Jr., and chef Kai Campbell

What: Offer a kabbalat Shabbat/Juneteenth service and dinner

Where: At Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston

When: On Friday, June 21; the service begins at 6:30

How much: The service is free; dinner is $25 per person

To learn more and register: Go to B’nai Abraham’s website,, or call (973) 994-2290.

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