Perspectives on the Million Man March:
For Black Jews, a Second Day of Atonement Can Bridge a Gulf
Seeking reconciliation among themselves can be a major step toward a
healing process between two troubled groups.

Los Angeles Times, Oct. 13, 1995
The Boston Globe, Oct. 14, 1995

For African American Jews–and it should be quickly and clearly understood that we are not an esoteric oddity, but as many as 200,000 Americans who make up nearly 4 percent of the U.S. Jewish population–the High Holiday season has been extended.

Along with the call for 1 million black men to convene in the nation’s capital, planners of the Million Man March have appealed to the black community nationwide, male and female, to observe Monday as a day of atonement.

The idea is an expropriation from Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish observances. It is a positive application of the frequently heard supplication in black circles that “we should do as the Jews do” in regard to economic and political self-reliance, despite the endlessly reported chasm between those two communities. It is an idea whose genesis in part stems from discussions between Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., who is black and a regional board member of the American Jewish Congress, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is a planner but not the planner of the march.

Who and how many show up in Washington on Monday is secondary. The observance of a day of atonement for all African Americans is an act of healing long overdue in our diverse and sometimes disparate community. Black leaders of every ilk have long preached the need to get our own house in order before casting stones at any external foe. And we must seek and obtain reconciliation among ourselves, the Malcolms and the Martins; the Black Muslims, black Christians, black Jews, before any healing process with other groups can have any significance.

A day of atonement is not to say that it is we who have done wrong, that African Americans need apologize to America for failing to melt into the pot, or pointing out that the pot is too hot. It is rather an articulation of the Yom Kippur question: “Who among us can say he is without sin?” It is a recognition that God may grant absolution to those created in his image, but that forgiveness among humans must be worked out among humans themselves. African Americans certainly have much to work out; to allot a single day to do so in 350 years of slavery and an incomplete promise of the American dream is hardly unreasonable.

Observant Jews know too that the gates of repentance are always open, regardless if most of us enter that passageway but once a year. To fast and atone a second day is not inconsistent for African American Jews; we of this unique duality have enough experience as full members of both groups to contemplate for weeks, let alone two days. That the African American day of atonement falls on Simchat Torah, which celebrates the granting of the covenant between Jews and God, enhances its significance.

Black Jews in the United States are not blind to the divisions between our two groups, no matter how exaggerated. If anyone, it is we who can best understand the hurt experienced by individuals on each side when the sea of hostility overflows. We know what it is that is hurtful to Jews in some of the words of Brother Farrakhan, even if he isn’t talking about black Jews. And we feel the indignation and assault on black personhood when some Jewish organizations attempt to tell blacks who black leaders should be and where they should lead us. The Anti-Defamation League’s public denouncement of the march as “the most mainstream event led by an anti-Semite in recent American history” can be viewed as nothing but an attack on black leadership.

There are Jews who have expressed genuine concern that a black day of atonement led by perceived antagonists may turn into a mockery of Judaism’s holiest observance. But African Americans are not so gullible as to misunderstand or take lightly the word atone; indeed, it has been our deep spirituality when we have had nothing else that has powered our endurance through centuries of adversity.

For all our suffering, we Jews cannot claim a monopoly on forgiveness. Neither are we African Americans suddenly applying for a franchise of it. Beyond the realm of religion, sensitive clinicians advise troubled patients to forgive, to let go, for self-health reasons more than any other. No heart can withstand a lifetime of anger.

To a person, my three dozen colleagues in the nascent National Conference of Black Jews find ourselves all in favor of the march. Although we may not be there in person, we look forward to a second day of introspection, of forgiveness that may lead to the balm of healing between our two troubled communities.

Robin Washington, managing editor of the Bay State Banner, Boston’s African American weekly newspaper, is a co-founder of the National Conference of Black Jews.*

*(Later renamed the Alliance of Black Jews)