After Dillard University President Dr. Rochelle Ford began her term last July, she visited the school’s shuttered National Center for Black-Jewish Relations, which was established in 1974 and closed in 1997, and read a book about past symposiums held on campus. She was instantly fascinated by the work being done back then. 

Then she started seeing manifestations of that work pop up across campus and in the greater New Orleans area.

“As I got to know more leaders in town, I met a Jewish American family that used to do Dillard’s general counsel and external counsel work,” Ford said. “I talked to another person whose relative helped desegregate New Orleans. Then I learned about the architect who helped design the landscape and architecture of our buildings.” 

Dillard, she realized, had always been involved in forging pathways to understanding between Black and Jewish communities, and she knew what she had to do. On Jan. 17, the university announced the reopening of the National Center for Black-Jewish Relations.

“If Dillard played this role in the past, it’s needed now more than ever,” Ford said. “Part of our remit is to cultivate leaders who act courageously to make the world a better place. That’s who we say we are, and we need to cultivate leaders on this issue.” 

By revitalizing the center, Ford and Dillard are also honoring the tradition of a special, mutually beneficial relationship between Jewish scholars and HBCUs that was established nearly a century ago. 

Dr. Albert Einstein talks with a group of students at Lincoln University before receiving an honorary doctorate there in May 1946. Photo courtesy of the John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries .

Finding a home in Black Academia

In 1933, shortly after Hitler tightened his grip on power in Germany, he issued a Nazi mandate abolishing “non-Aryans” from civil service and academia, forcing scores of Jewish intellectuals to seek refuge in the U.S. Most were unable to leverage their reputations back home with predominantly white American colleges and universities—many of which still harbored the same antisemitism that informed the policies making it difficult for them to enter the country in the first place, although Princeton University welcomed Nobel laureate Albert Einstein into its Institute for Advanced Study with open arms. 

Others found academic homes in HBCUs, whose leaders empathized with the discrimination they faced and invited intellectuals like Ernst Borinski, Ernst Manasse, and Viktor Lowenfeld to teach at Tougaloo College, North Carolina Central University, and Hampton Institute (now Hampton College), respectively. Just as the Black academics could identify with the antisemitism that kept them locked out of other schools, the Jewish professors gained a deep understanding of the racist landscape of the country through their experiences of working at HBCUs. 

According to Aaron Bloch, who heads the Center for Jewish-Multicultural Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and is part of the seven-person planning committee for the center at Dillard, part of the reason his organization was founded was to carry on the work started at the National Center for Black-Jewish Relations. He is thrilled to now combine forces with the university at such a critical moment.

“The Jewish community as a whole is focused on the rise of antisemitism, but in every breath, we’re talking about racism and hate in all their forms,” Bloch said. “We’re all the targets of the same people.”

Building new bridges

Bloch will be joined by Khalida Lloyd, founder of the religious nonprofit Mission Reconcile in New Orleans. Lloyd facilitates religious reconciliation programs through the lens of race. Her organization works primarily with Christian churches, but Lloyd was inspired by a partnership to revisit working across religions in her previous job between a Black young professional network in Washington, D.C. and the American Jewish Committee. She seized the opportunity to do more of that work with Dillard. 

“We talk about the history of Black-Jewish relations and how it was so pivotal, but I just don’t think that relationship is present, whether it’s DC, or NOLA, or another city,” Lloyd said. “This institute that is reforming and re-catalyzing at Dillard I think is going to invite that.” 

She added that while the committee doesn’t yet have specifics for the plans for the National Center for Black-Jewish Relations (the group will meet after Mardi Gras ends), she envisions a meeting center that addresses intergenerational needs along with racial and religious ones, and that there will be equal representation among the groups that show up.

“I think a lot of young Black students will learn a history that will be very formative and foundational to what they do in the world—learning what that relationship could look like,” Lloyd said. “And I hope it [also] brings a young group of Jewish community [members] so that there’s not this imbalance of knowledge sharing.” 

Just down the street from Dillard at Xavier University of Louisiana, another HBCU, a group of Black scholars has been hard at work turning their education into action to address the rise of misinformation and intolerance against Jews.

Jamya Davis, Aarinii Parms-Green, and two other students in the university’s honors program are conducting field research to better understand root causes and gauge the public’s understanding of antisemitism and teach them about the history of Black-Jewish relations in America. Their research is part of a larger initiative in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security to target and prevent domestic terrorism.

Davis said that as a political science major, she was surprised by how much she had to learn about the longstanding cooperation between Black and Jewish scholars and civil rights leaders—or the contentious moments they shared. Once she did, she understood it was that much more important to eradicate antisemitic rhetoric from the Black community.

Their group has also harnessed social media to share their research with their community in engaging ways. They post “Tiny Mics” to the school’s TikTok page, short videos showing their members approaching people on the street and quizzing them about the history of Black-Jewish relations, such as the fact that Louis Armstrong wore a Star of David to honor the Jewish families who supported him throughout his career.

Davis and Green said people tended to answer their trivia questions incorrectly, which didn’t surprise them. Part of what they hope to achieve with their project is to normalize this knowledge.

“The fact that this is not being taught as heavily as it was is really concerning to me, which makes the importance of this project heightened because we have to catch what isn’t being taught,” Davis said. “The thing we don’t know can lead to us assuming there’s nothing to know.”

Parms-Green added, “You can’t really understand someone until you know their history and they know yours.”
This article was made possible by a grant from Shine A Light, a national initiative dedicated to raising awareness of modern-day antisemitism and encouraging societal change through a shared sense of communal allyship.

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