Coinciding with the annual observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the kinship between African Americans
and Jews was celebrated at Community Day School on Monday, Jan. 21, with a morning concert by The Afro-Semitic Experience, a jazz ensemble based in New Haven, Conn., that blends Afro-diasporic and Jewish music. The concert was attended by the student body, and was open to the public.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice rang out as one of the most emphatic and effec- tive influences against racism of the 20th century. His 12 years at the helm of domestic civil rights advocacy, with its emphasis on nonviolent resistance, led to more progress toward equality for African Americans than occurred in the previous 350 years, according to The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
He was also a staunch ally to Jews, a steadfast supporter of the State of Israel who vehe- mently condemned anti-Semitism.
King saw a deep connection between African Americans and Jewish Americans,and spoke of it from public platforms. In a May 14, 1958, speech delivered to the national convention of the American Jewish Congress, King said: “My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”
A few months later, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue was bombed. The suspected perpetrators were white supremacists enraged by the congregation’s and its rabbi’s support for the civil rights movement.
Cognizant of the deep ties between the Jewish community and the civil rights movement, the Afro-Semitic Experience was formed 21 years ago, first as a duo co-founded by African-American jazz pianist Warren Byrd and Jewish-American jazz bassist David Chevan. Now a seven- piece ensemble that has performed across the United States, the band combines an eclectic array of styles “bringing people together, talking about unity and community, sharing the music and the stories of our different faiths and cultures, and our places where we intersect,” said Chevan.
The Afro-Semitic Experience emphasizes the commonalities between the two cultures. “We celebrate our similarities,” Chevan said. “We recognize our differences, but what we share in common is a love of community, respect for elders and traditions, respect for stories and heritage, and understanding how our stories and heritage make our lives deeper. I think we have a lot more in common than what might appear
on the surface.”
The band performs its own arrangements of traditional pieces, as well as original material. When celebrating King, Chevan said, “we often play pieces that were by his favorite gospel singers, or his favorite gospel songs, or songs that have very strong messages that he was particularly fond of. Those are ways that we integrate Dr. King’s message into everything that we do.”
The band was in Pittsburgh in September 2018, performing at the community Selichot service. While here, the band met members of the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha community, Chevan said, making the impact of the Oct. 27 massacre one month later even more personal.
“It really touched us very deeply,” he said. “And some of the pieces we chose today from our repertoire, we chose because we wanted to share songs of healing and deeper understanding. So, there’s a song that we wrote called ‘The Road that Heals The Splintered Soul’ that we shared with the kids and the parents. For us, it was very powerful to be coming back.”
The students at CDS, Chevan was told, are “learning about intersectionality and they are beginning to recognize this is a powerful thing for the Jewish community,” he said. “We see the shooting at the church
in Charleston and the shooting at Tree of Life are connected, because it was an African- American sacred space, and Jewish sacred space, desecrated by haters. There is so much intersectionality between our people. It goes beyond we once were all slaves. We both live with one eye over our shoulder at all times.”
The aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting left band co-founder Byrd wrestling with “how we can get human beings to treat each other that much better,” he said. “How can we get to the point where we can make room for each other’s differences and make room to respect each other’s points of view, even if they don’t align with ours?
“We all have our respective heritages which we bring to each other,” Byrd continued. “We can learn to make those things work together rather than falling victim to fear and hatred.”
This was the fourth consecutive year that CDS has remained in session on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for a social justice- themed curriculum.
“I am inspired by the passion and commitment that our teachers have devoted to making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a rich and meaningful experience,” Head of School Avi Baran Munro said in a statement. “In a time when the Pittsburgh Jewish community and CDS have received an outpouring of love, kindness and inclusion from across the world, it is urgent that we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of social justice for all marginalized communities guided by our Jewish values.”
In addition to the concert, CDS students participated in music workshops and the creation of schoolwide mosaic art installation. A panel discussion on community and leadership was held with Mayor Bill Peduto, Rev. Tim Smith from Center of Life in Hazelwood, Yael Silk of the Arts Education Collaborative, and Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.
All students and faculty wore T-shirts with a portrait of King and the phrase: “His dream is my dream.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.