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Songs of Hope

Concert to celebrate song and strengthen relationships

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – On Sunday, Sept. 10 the Worcester Black-Jewish Alliance will present “Songs of Hope,” a concert celebrating African-American and Jewish music. The afternoon of song, followed by a potluck dinner, will take place at 4 p.m. at the Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church in Worcester.

The event, free and open to the public, is jointly sponsored by the supporters of Black-Jewish Alliance, a new community initiative: the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts; the Worcester chapter of the NAACP; and the Worcester Black Clergy Alliance.

There could not be a better time to come together for “a musical expression of hope, endurance, & triumph,” as the concert is billed. In the aftermath of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi hatred and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in mid-August – and the anti-racist rallies held in response across the country- a commitment to know and connect to one another is more vital than ever before.

“The horrific events in Charlottesville reinforce what we already knew – that it is imperative that we have ongoing communication and strong relationships with the African American and other minority communities, so that we can support and look out for not only our own interests but those of each other as well,” says Rabbi Michael Swarttz of Beth Tikvah Synagogue. He is a founding member of the group.

The Black-Jewish Alliance was formed last year “because we saw the need to strengthen the relationship between our two communities and to work on common issues together,” he continues.

It emerged from conversations between Rabbi Swarttz and other members of the Jewish community with Patricia Yancey, president of the Worcester NAACP, as well as the Reverend Esau Vance of the Worcester Black Clergy Alliance, comprised of the clergy of the local black churches.

Reverend Vance, the pastor of Mount Olive Pentecostal Church, notes that the object of the new initiative is “to restore the relationships between the Jewish community and the black community that we had in the 1960s.”

Part of the Civil Rights Movement under Martin Luther King Jr., he recalls that “There were lots of Jewish brothers and sisters who marched with us,” he says. “We want to try to reestablish some of that camaraderie to try to face some of the same issues today.”

Last fall, Rabbi Swarttz and Rabbi Aviva Fellman of Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester took part in a Day of Prayer, an interfaith event organized by the Worcester NAACP and held in front of City Hall in Worcester.

In addition, the Jewish community participated in November’s forum on the increase in hate crimes in the aftermath of the presidential election, held at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester. Early this spring, the members of the Black-Jewish Alliance met to plan their first formally organized event.

The essence of “Songs of Hope” will be “to come together and meet and greet extended members of the Jewish community as well as the Black community,” says Reverend Vance.

“It’s about unity among suffering people facing racism.  We’re trying to deal with it by coming together, dialoguing on how to face and deal with it.”

The concert program includes three performers from each community: vocalists Lydia Fortune and Anthony Russell; percussionist Mitch Gordon; and two choral groups, the a capella choir, Knights of Zion, and Shir Joy, the Central Mass Jewish Community Choir.

Bringing it home will be a special appearance by the “Men of Faith”: Reverend Vance; the Reverend Richard Wright, founding pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church; the Reverend Walter I. Lucas of Faith Tabernacle Church; and Rabbi Swarttz.

“We’re going to have a rehearsal with a musician who can teach us how to hold a tune and help us get through a couple of songs,” says Reverend Vance. “We’ll be singing one Jewish song and probably a spiritual.”

Of course, music goes hand in hand with food, and the audience is invited to take part in a potluck supper following the concert by bringing a Jewish or Southern dish to share. The two communities will sit down together over kugel and collards, encouraging fellowship and friendships across the table.

The new alliance hopes that “Songs of Hope” will be “the first program of many in an ongoing partnership and relationship with the black community in Worcester,” says Rabbi Swarttz.

After the High Holidays, the group will likely have a meeting to “evaluate the concert and to start talking about where we go next to further the connections and the relationships,” he says.

Ultimately, says Reverend Vance, “It’s all about unity and getting to know one another better and be a voice in hot button issues as they come up. If there wasn’t so much work to do here on earth, some of us might be ready to join the Lord. But we have to keep fighting.”

“Songs of Hope: A Musical Expression of Hope, Endurance and Triumph” will take place at 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 10, at the Belmont A.M.E. Zion Church at 55 Illinois Street in Worcester. For more information, please contact the Jewish Federation of Central Mass at 508-756-1543 x201 or the Worcester NAACP at 774-314-7515.

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