There was praying and poetry. There was dancing and singing. There were presentations and awards. And yes, there were speeches by activists, politicians and preachers.
The occasion was the fifth annual Black History Month Celebration, organized by U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, and held this year at the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack, New Jersey.
The February 22 event featured New Jersey's two U.S. Senators and keynote speaker Wade Henderson, the former Washington Bureau director of the NAACP and currently the President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Education Fund.
The program, entitled "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants," focused on the tasks ahead rather than on the landmark civil rights achievements of the past. And, according to every speaker, the list of challenges facing today's black community was long and serious: the widening wealth gap, unemployment, health care, inferior education, high incarceration rates, police misconduct, bias in the criminal justice system―and voting rights.
Over and over, the speakers targeted voting discrimination, one of America's oldest civil rights issues, as a problem that still endures. Today's tactics were subtler but highly damaging nonetheless, according to the speakers, and they included voter I.D. laws, shortened voting hours, registration restrictions, and overbroad felon disenfranchisement.
"Our challenge is to keep the movement alive," Senator Menendez declared, "to keep up the fight for voting rights, health care, and economic empowerment." The Senator vowed to do "everything in my power" to support an extension of the Voting Rights Act. Senator Cory Booker called on the audience to "not forget where you come from" and to remember that "there is no such thing as impossible."
Wade Henderson urged action on the economic and education front. "People of color are falling behind and doing worse than in 1960," he declared. "The recession of 2008 was a Great Depression for black America. It was not an equal opportunity recession nor is it today an equal opportunity recovery."
At the conclusion of the program, I walked up to both Senator Menendez and Wade Henderson to greet them and express AJC solidarity. Both men warmly welcomed the AJC presence at the event. Networking is what such an exchange would have been called in the world of employment. Building relationships is what it is called in the world of politics―and it is what AJC's staff and volunteers work hard to do regularly and consistently every day
Alain Sanders, AJC Bergen New Jersey with Senator Bob Menendez
Last week I attended, as an AJC volunteer and a professional photographer, the 29th Annual Interfaith Brotherhood-Sisterhood of Bergen County Breakfast.
The breakfast was awesome because it drew from people with diverse religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds who gathered to share a message of hope and a call to action delivered passionately by AJC’s Rabbi David Rosen.
Three hundred fifty plus people broke bread together, prayed together and listened to music sung by an interfaith children’s choir and by Tavim an adult acapella group.
I was personally moved by the beautiful faces (which I was compelled to capture digitally), the music that brought us together and put smiles on our faces and by Rabbi Rosen’s message, delivered so eloquently and passionately, that we must learn about each other and not be limited by ill-informed assumptions and stereotypes.
Rabbi Rosen’s message that, “No relationship is beyond transformation no matter how toxic it is,” gives me hope particularly in a world where our news is dominated by stories of blood and hatred, rather than by “good news” which exists but does not get sufficient play in our media.
I am inspired by AJC’s behind the scenes access and by the fact that Rabbi Rosen can be a member of the Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) which is slowly changing attitudes and practices, not only in Saudi Arabia but around the world. His membership in that group gives me hope that he may be able to educate those of other faiths about Judaism.
Yesterday’s breakfast made me feel good to be a part of a community in Bergen County where dialogue and sharing have been taking place for 29 years, where diversity is celebrated because our lives are enriched by such sharing.
I felt proud to be a member of AJC and to support Rabbi Rosen in his work as International Director of Interreligious Affairs. Clearly, AJC is making a difference in our world.