Gossett to Give Historic Sermon at D.C. Synagogue
When the rabbi of one of the oldest synagogues in the District decided to have an African American deliver the traditional Saturday morning sermon, some thought it would be a noted minister or a political figure with close ties to the Jewish community.
However, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the 122-year-old Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Northwest Washington, surprised many by inviting Academy Award-winning actor Lou Gossett Jr. to preach to the congregation on Aug. 23. After Gossett?s sermon, there will be a discussion on the state of Black-Jewish relations.
Herzfeld said he decided to extend the opportunity to Gossett because of the opportunity to hear from a man who builds relationships with people from different backgrounds.
?I am deeply impressed with him,? Herzfeld said. ?I found him to be a spiritual man.
?This is normally a sermon given by a rabbi but I feel that the life that Mr. Gossett has led is so special that we should hear his words.?
Gossett, 72, has acted in a number of movies and television shows either as a star or supporting actor. In 1983, he won ?Best Supporting Actor? in the movie, ?An Officer and a Gentleman? and an Emmy as the ?Fiddler? in the 1977 ABC television miniseries, ?Roots.?
In 2006, he founded the ERACISM Foundation, which is dedicated to creating entertainment that brings education and awareness to issues such as racism, ignorance and society apathy.
?Friction between [Jews] and African Americans is amplified by some who do not want us to get along. We have Black members of this synagogue and they feel comfortable here.?
Gossett said he quickly agreed when he was asked to deliver the sermon.
?I am a product of the successful union of these two (Afro-Judaic) cultures,? he said. ?If it were not for that I would have never have entertained the thought to excel the way I have.
?I was equally influenced by the way that the Jewish families encouraged their children to succeed. Growing up in Coney Island (New York), there were strong bonds between the African-American community and the Jewish community and those bonds remain today.
?I look forward to speaking at the shule to officially thank the Jewish community and encourage the continuation of a beautiful relationship.?
Herzfeld?s synagogue has had Blacks make presentations before and it has a handful of Black members, known as African-American Jews. While Gossett is not the first person of African descent to deliver the Saturday morning sermon — an Ethiopian Jewish rabbi did so a few years ago — an African American making the presentation is just as historic.
Herzfeld?s invitation is an example of how Jewish leaders are trying to reach out to Blacks as a sign of unity, he said. Throughout American history, the two groups have worked together to advance causes of social justice, whether it was ending slavery, fighting segregation or promoting civil and human rights in the South during the civil rights movement.
Over the years, there has been some tension since the 1978 Allan Bakke U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the use of quotas in employment and education. Black and Jewish leaders disagreed on the Bakke decision because Blacks said quotas made sure that they had access to education, employment and business opportunities while Jewish leaders argued that Jewish participation in business and higher education was limited based on their ethnicity, and the tool to ensure this was quotas.
Statements made by Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his 1984 campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for president upset Jews, leading many Black political leaders to repudiate their comments or limit support of their activities. Farrakhan and Jackson have repeatedly said they are not anti-Semites but want an honest dialogue as Blacks become more economically and politically empowered.
Dr. Lewis Gordon, a Black Jew and the director of Temple University?s Center for Afro-Jewish Studies, said relations between the two groups are not that good. He argues that many Jews of European descent left their idealistic liberalism behind after the 60?s to embrace neo-conservatism, that Blacks are ?the enemy to civil order in the United States.?
?When White Jews speak of a shared status of oppression, many Black Americans see that as disingenuous, and explain, echoing Martin Luther King Jr., why they prefer not to wait,? he said. ?What Jewish Americans fail to understand is that although they and Blacks are minorities, there is a world of difference between being considered a member of a White minority than one of color.?
Herzfeld disagrees with Gordon.
?I believe that Blacks and Jews are getting along quite well,? he said. ?I think the friction between us and African Americans is amplified by some who do not want us to get along. We have Black members of this synagogue and they feel comfortable here.
?Judaism is color-blind. Let me be clear about this: people who are racist against Blacks are also anti-Semites.?
Gossett agrees with Herzfeld, saying that Blacks and Jews have come a long way and should continue the journey together.
?Because of our similar histories it is only natural for us to continue our collaboration at all levels, as a shining example of what America should definitely be striving for,? he said. ?Then we can show the rest of the world by example what democracy in action can look like.?