By: Keith S. Shikowitz
In part one of our coverage of the meeting we discussed the how and why of this important summit. Here we recount the rest of the vital discussion .
The discussion moved from the early unity of the two groups to the reasons for the break in that unity. After Carol Berkman had finished her explanation and examples of the unity, the moderator Isabelle Acosta asked, “At what point did the break occur? Based on your perceptions and life experiences, what do you believe was one of the culminating factors that caused the break between these two communities?”
Paul Galan, a Holocaust survivor, was the first to respond. “One time I was on a plane and sitting next to me was an ultra – orthodox lady. We got involved in conversation. One thing led to another and I asked her, ‘Can you explain one thing to me. How could God, who you believe is the master of everything in this world, how can God and we have been the chosen people of God supposedly, allow 6 million of the chosen people to be slaughtered by the evil Nazis?’ This lady looked at me and said, “It’s because of people like you.”
“I never understood that. How anyone could believe that one Jew would tell another, it’s because of people like you. Am I not a Jew? Are you not a Jew? Didn’t we all suffer similarly? How can you possibly make such an accusation? This is what brings us to the whole idea of the break.
Virginia Norfleet stepped in and expounded on the reasons she feels the break happened, “I believe the break happened after the Martin Luther King assassination. That would be my take. I was young when he was assassinated. I remember when they brought the TV into our classroom and the world mourned when Martin Luther King died. Since then, we have never had as a community, really had the single voice. I think that hurt us as a people as a black people and the relationship with the Jewish people hurt also because of it.”
She also feels that the educational system has created a massive break between the two groups. “It demands that I learn about the Holocaust, but it refuses to teach me in American and who I have been all along. It’s easy to tell me that I have to learn about something that happened in another country that didn’t have anything really to with me. But they refuse to tell me how I can be equal with you. I think the educational system has done a horrific job in trying to bridge together. Instead, it is creating a divide. With that comes some resentment. I’m not speaking for everyone black and I have many Jewish friends as a matter of fact we refer to each other as brother and sister. So do a lot of other Jewish people with me.”
According to Norfleet, her answer was not talking for everybody, but she says no one can deny what has happened in our educational system. “When you talk about black history, people start to lose their breath around January 31 because the dread the 28 days they have to come up with a program. And at best when they do, it’s the same old, same old. We’ve been talking about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass since the beginning of time.”
There’s been so many other people, so many other things to talk about, yet we stay right there and then guess what? At the end of the 28 days, your history doesn’t mean a thing. Norfleet pointed out. “That’s the problem. That’s a big part of the problem. (looking at the moderator) Keep me on time because I can go through this all day. This is a part of the problem.”
She next explained about the religious connection between the two groups. “We read out of the same book. We go a little farther as Christians but, we start off at the same book. We can’t come together, we serve a God but on Sunday mornings is the most segregated times in America. We call it church, you call it temple so be it on Saturday and Sunday, these are the most segregated times. You don’t see many African Americans in synagogues, and you don’t see many Jewish people in churches.”
One thing that was suggested by the panel was to have African American History made more a part of the curriculum than just one month of the same activities, year in and year out. A person who is a teacher said, “This is a good idea, but the only problem with it was that teachers in NYS teach their students to be able to pass the Regents exams. To add what they were asking for would also mean retooling the entire exam. He believed that the board of regents is not going to be willing to do that. “It’s a great idea and one that deserves serious consideration and should be done. The biggest problem is that the powers that be are not willing to make sweeping changes to the curriculum. It would mean they would actually have to do some real work for once.”
Berkman addressed Galan and Norfleet. “I think that when we can appreciate the common humanity that we all share, and realize that when one group is oppressed, we are all oppressed. To learn the history of the Holocaust and to learn the history of Black oppression and slavery is to learn our human history.”
For Berkman, the key is recognizing we are as one race. It is the human race, and we are all responsible for each other. “I do want to say that when we talk about the break, me as a Jewish person and there were personalities, very strong personalities, in the African American community, who said some pretty far out things for the time. I give the example of the time I went with my daughter to the first Woman’s March. It was a wonderful experience. When there were certain people in charge of the Woman’s March, associated with Louis Farrakhan, I felt I couldn’t go anymore because he had said such hurtful, hateful things. I kept thinking we have to relate on the human level. All of us. That is perhaps the Segway to the next part of our talk.”
Taking a brief pause for the panelists to catch their breath, Acosta commented that, that was a great kind of lead into the next question. “I think what you guys have basically been saying is that not only is there a divide between those two communities, but there’s a divide in the internal community as well. What are some really big ways we can build those bridges?”
One of the ways we’re committed to do so, according to Acosta, especially in Rockland County, is to start these conversations internally as well as externally. To talk to different communities where we see a divide. To understand each other’s narrative and to put ourselves in each other’s place to understand why they think the way they think. Why they have an opinion the way they do. And really again to foster that mutual respect that we as a county can come together more resilient and prepare for anything that may come our way as a united front.
“That really does bring us to the last question. That is based on everything you have heard today, and what you believe and what you know, what are some of the ways we can build that foundation?
Winograd opened this segment of the discussion by thanking Ed Day and the Human Rights Commission, and all the different commissions. “I received a phone call one day from the county asking if I was interested in doing a joint grant with HAAC? I had never heard of HAAC. They introduced me to HAAC and Ginny Norfleet, and we put together along with the assistance of Rockland County a joint grant between the Holocaust Museum and the HAAC. Two museums. One museum on the campus of Rockland Community College, honoring the Holocaust and a Tolerance Center. Ginny is opening up a slavery museum in Haverstraw. Here the two organizations were brought together by the county.”
“I want to talk about what happened after we wrote the grant. It has been a kinship, a friendship. There has not been a morning around 6:00 that I don’t wake up to a text or a phone call from Ginny or Carol, two of my mentors. Because of that joint opportunity we were able to take that into a friendship and to everyday, Ginny teaching me about Judaism. Carol learning from Ginny and inviting her to a Shabbos dinner. Me inviting Ginny to Passover. It’s these small seeds that can be put together and it’s really what you do with it. That is within our control.”
She added that they could have written the grant together and said nice to meet you. Good luck I hope we get it. Instead, they took that and took ownership of it. “I empower everyone, don’t just check the box. Don’t just do a grant together or simple things. Take it to the next step. Learn about your friend. Learn about their history. Share your history. I think that’s important. That’s in our control.”
Berkman agreed, “I think the key is dialogue. This is only a beginning. This is not the culminating event or it’s the Black History Month event. See you next year. It’s the beginning of a series of dialogues that we invite you to join with us to get to know each other. To talk to each other. To be in each other’s spaces and places.”
“I made a decision upon my retirement, let me back track. I was a film maker by profession and it took me a very long time to put my story of my perspectives where I could talk about them. Galan explained.
“As such by the time I decided to retire and having interviewed and spoken to many, many people of different callings, different races, different colors, you name it during my professional life, I said to myself, I have to share my story with someone to make something of it make some good come from it. I decided to join the Holocaust Museum. This is not a plug for the museum. This is a plug for what they enabled me to do and what they encouraged me to do. It was to go and speak to as many people as I can and share my story.” Galan concluded by thanking everyone for their participation.
With time running out, Norfleet summed up her take on this discussion. “Much like Paul, as I started to learn about the contributions of the local African Americans to Rockland County and NYS, one of the things that HAAC has successfully done is create a Memorial Park in Haverstraw that highlights the 400+ years of being in NY. We are now bringing about a museum and we had the street renamed after us for all the work that has been done and we’ve received over 60+ awards because even though this is all new to some of us, it should not have been new news.”
Norfleet questioned why she was the first to receive awards for different things, an award from a historical society, from a township that my family has been in for 120 years. This should not be a first in 2021 for Black people, if you’re talking about a people who have been in the country for over 400 years.
“I and my group are committed to bring about the Experience, which is what the museum will be called. It will bring you from Africa to America. To NYS and Haverstraw. When I teach at the schools, it gives kids pleasure to know, I make history live for them because the very ground we walk on is historic. It’s just a shame that it’s been suppressed history. I live for the day when I don’t have to have an African American month. I don’t know how to do that. What do I do with the other 11 months in the year? No one has figured that out yet. I live for the day when I don’t have to tag myself as AFRICAN American because if you put me back in Africa, I wouldn’t know what to do. All I know is America.”
She says they are going to keep fighting this fight and pressing this point until everyone can receive all of us as just Americans. “We are so much better together. We have so much in common. That’s where we are going to go with this, the schools, and the museum. We’re going to have the Harriet Tubman monument called the Journey to Freedom. I beat out many big cities based on Haverstraw’s local story. We will have it from April 19 – June 7. I ask that you all come and be a part of the celebration.”
Norfleet summed up this discussion showing how we are more similar than different. “We all may have come on different ships to this country, It doesn’t matter how you got here, we are all in the same boat now. If we don’t figure out how to make it together, then this is what we call America and this is the best we’ve got. It will be lost. It’s our job. It’s every person on this lives job to make this a better place and we owe a debt. We must leave this world better to be the parent of the world. For all that you don’t know, I know Andrea’s Jewish, Carol’s Jewish and Paul’s Jewish. The call me and I identify as a Baptecostal Jew because I have the best of both worlds. I’m Baptist, Pentecostal and Jewish and that’s who I am.”
Just as a reminder, the next Better Together Zoomcast is going to be on March 16, 2021 from 12:30 – 1:15 pm. The Zoom link for the event is bit.ly/HMCTEbtp2. For more information you can e mail Holocaustrcc@gmail.com or Virginia@thehaac.com