3-year-old black-Jewish group seeking more ‘talkers and doers’

Yvonne Bush, an expatriate New Yorker born of an African-American father and a Jewish mother, has felt the sting and the balm of having a home in two worlds. Now Bush is bringing together members of both communities as co-chair of Marin’s 3-year-old African American-Jewish Dialogue.

Her partner in this mission in Sharon Gordon, past president of San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

A program of the JCRC, the group aims to heal and stimulate through community projects, celebrations and that mainstay of both cultures, intense dialogue. This week’s meeting was slated to feature a film on black students who worked on a kibbutz in Israel.

“We have several missions,” said Bush, who lives in Corte Madera. “One is to keep the lines of communication open between the two ethnic groups. Another is to educate each other about our culture and traditions. And we also wanted to build community in Marin.”

Gordon of San Rafael, who has been team-teaching in Sonoma County public schools for 17 years, calls herself “a team person.”

“I know that doesn’t come easily to everyone. There’s a lot of compromising..”

Discussing her teamwork with Bush, she added: “We have a good balance. She’ll think of things I wouldn’t, then I will come up with suggestions.”

For instance, the two decided that one way to expand the core group was to draft a letter asking each member to bring one friend aboard. “Yvonne’s feeling is that you need to network, and that you should start with your friends,” Gordon said. “It was a simple, but a great idea.”

Both women have raised children in Marin County, and both are busy professionals. Gordon is a teacher at Waldo Rohnert School and Bush is a manager for Marin’s Department of Health and Human Services as well as a realtor with Pacific Marketing Associates in San Francisco. Both have a passion for community work.

“We make the time,” Gordon said. “And thank God for this age and its technology. We get a lot done by fax and e-mail.”

This summer, the women will chart the group’s course for the year. “We have been with the group since it started, and we have more of a sense now of where we want to go,” Gordon said.

Among those goals:

*Promoting better media coverage of the vital bonds between African-Americans and Jews.

*A formal seder with a Haggadah that compares the odyssey of American slaves with the Jewish flight from Egypt.

*Working hands-on with Novato schools, which have recently come under attack for “tolerating harassment,” Bush said, of minorities.

Which is not to say the group will veer away from its epicenter, the sometimes painfully honest discussions — such as the one about James McBride’s memoir, “The Color of Water.”

McBride discovered that his mother, a devout Baptist, grew up Jewish and had been largely disowned by her family when she married a black man.

“The conflicts have helped our group,” Bush said. “We’ve become friends, building on the things we’ve had to overcome.”

For Bush, that includes challenges that she does not value her African-American heritage.

“I always say, ‘I’m proud of myself as a whole, and I’m a whole person.’ I was brought up as a black person in the black community. You are what you look like in America and I look very black.”

“It’s taken a while to scratch below the surface,” said Gordon. “You have to talk about the things that are fragile, the things that are uncomfortable to talk about.”

Some 40 to 50 Marinites show up for parties, like the annual Chanukah-Kwanzaa fete, which JCRC staffer Judy Penso calls “our big candle event,” or Juneteenth, a celebration that marks the anniversary of the freeing of Texas slaves.

But the real grist is milled at the organization’s monthly meetings, attended by 12 to 15 people.

“We open up and discuss our personal histories,” Bush said. “It has really opened up our eyes.”

Despite the small size of the core group, much has been done. Its first mission, during a rash of church-burnings by hate groups in the South several years ago, was to pressure lawmakers to investigate and bring the instigators to justice. Some members traveled to Mississippi to help rebuild churches.

The group also took a stand against Proposition 209, the 1996 anti-affirmative action measure.

Realizing future goals will ultimately demand a larger core group, both women said.

But the watchword is commitment — and the involvement of those who identify as African Americans and as Jews, “not people who drop in because they’re interested and just happen to be Jewish,” added co-founder Steve Shaiken.

“We need talkers and doers,” Bush said. “The more people are willing to talk and share their feelings, the better things will be.”

Information on the African American-Jewish Dialogue: Judy Penso at the Jewish Community Relations Council: (415) 472-5128.


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