What Being The Only Black Kid At Jewish Summer Camp Taught Me About Hanukkah And Kwanzaa
The proximity yet disconnect between Hanukkah and Kwanzaa has always seemed to me to reflect the relationship between the Jewish and Black communities. These two Diasporas with complex intertwined histories remain in what feels like a constant, surface-level dialogue. Sometimes it bends towards disagreement. Occasionally, it brings potential-filled light-giving sparks, though rarely an enduring fire.
This perpetual closeness yet unrealized alliance has been a lifelong object of interest to me that began very early on. As a child growing up in the Baltimore of the 1980s, I had only the most peripheral understanding of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. December was for me the “most wonderful time of the year” as the song goes, full of the anticipation of Christmas. That is, until the successive losses of my parents. My older sister, twelve years my senior, took me in. And with the hope of keeping her eleven-year-old newly orphaned little brother out of trouble during the summer, she found an overnight sports camp to ship me off to.
Leaving my sister felt like another loss to me and this grief resulted in my arriving to camp with tears in my eyes. And yet it wasn’t just my crying that made me stand out on that first day. I quickly realized that nearly everyone around me was white. My sister somehow forgot to mention the racial demographics of the camp. But that’s not all she forgot.
The first Friday evening rolled around and we made our way to the rec hall. We walked in and several of the guys around me put on what I described in a letter to my sister as “little caps” on their heads. They then began to sings songs in a different language and it finally dawned on me that this wasn’t just a white camp, it was in fact a Jewish camp.
I was shocked to say the least. My only previous exposure to Jews had been mediated through my father. My father was a good man. A strong, ground-breaking African American attorney. I don’t remember a lot of our conversations, but I do remember him from time to time talking about “those Jews”. He spoke with derision and with what I’d now call an anti-Semitism.
He was responding to the discrimination and hate that he and others in the Black community felt from their Jewish neighbors – a sad paralyzing circle of distrust that dissolved what could and should have been an important alliance in Baltimore.
I couldn’t help but hear his loud baritone echo from the past as I sat surrounded by my Jewish bunkmates. Would they hate me too? I wondered. Would I hate them?
One afternoon during that first week, I was at the basketball court during a free play period. Alone and holding back tears, I was throwing up brick after brick at a free basket. I was big and fast, but I had never really played organized sports.
So I stood alone on that blacktop court with the brick invested backboard, feeling bad about my inability to play ball and feeling awkward about my inability to fit in.
The director of the camp was a man named Lee Horowitz. A tall, kind man who had coached basketball and lacrosse most of his life. In the gracious grandfatherly way that he was known for, he came over to me and asked if he could give me a “few tips” about how to shoot the ball.
It wasn’t lost on me that Lee (as he asked to be called) wasn’t working with the stand out players who had started a pickup game at another basket. Or that he wasn’t doing whatever it was camp directors did all day. Instead he was with me—the below-average homesick Christian Black kid — a below-average homesick Christian Black kid who ended up coming back to that camp summer after summer for 10 years, eventually becoming the head Basketball Counselor.
Every Friday of those ten years I would participate in the Friday night services often helping to lead the congregation sing the Sh’ma and picking up just enough Hebrew to pass a language requirement years later in seminary.
Those guys became family to me and we shared each other’s journeys. I caught a glimpse of what it was like to be the only Jewish student in a school with friends trying to convert you, the difficulty of being in Christian-normative communities, and ongoing jokes about what you can’t eat. I provided them with a window into what it was like to be the only Black kid in a school with people thinking you are less intelligent, are going to steal something, or only got in because of sports or affirmative action. We played ball together, got in trouble together, went to Bar Mitzvahs and birthday parties with each other. I even officiated the weddings of some of those guys. They were and remain family to me.
The intimacy of our relationships, now with nearly twenty years since last spending our summers together, ebbs and flows while being mostly sustained by the illusory connections of social media. That very same virtual connection not only permits me to see the children of my old camp friends, but also, oddly, their politics.
There is of course a great diversity in the political beliefs of my old camp friends, yet some of their views are greatly offensive to me. I’m sure this goes both ways. And here is the important juncture where so many attempts at Black and Jewish dialogue and relationships have broken down.
Upon awareness of deep political disagreement – disagreements over very serious matters like Israeli-Arab/Palestinian struggles or Black Lives Matter struggles – former interlocutors disengage after what are seen as “deal breakers”. A near brotherhood or sisterhood is lost and relegated back to surface-level civility with little depth and even less action.
I myself sometimes feel the urge to unfriend or block folks I disagree with. Yet there is a deeper tragedy in this amazingly simple button-click. With the movement of a finger, I could delete all of the invested days and summers of past relationship-building, as well as all of the potential future “allyship” when we may one day need each other. A powerful burning candle is quickly extinguished by spit and the squeeze of two fingers.
But allyship is the opposite of agreement. It’s a bond to remain committed to one another no matter what disagreements we may have. And when there are disagreements, honest dialogue with truth telling and humble listening, pushing and pulling happens. And after the dialogue, we can still disagree, but barring the most abusive and hateful exceptions, I won’t unfriend you. No matter what difficulties we face, the oil of our friendship won’t run out. Our candles won’t burn out.
This is what I learned from my experience being a Black kid at a Jewish summer camp. Those guys loved “the foreigner living among them” as Torah commands. They were brothers and allies across racial and religious difference and continue to do so amidst political difference and an anti-Semitic dad. Likewise I of course heard the n-word and suffered through juvenile stereotypes and jokes from peers.
Enduring through allyship doesn’t mean remaining silent in the face of disrespect; it means remaining.
The future of Black and Jewish Dialogue will need to pick up the conversation of the Black Lives Matter platform and the connections between folks in Baltimore and Ferguson with what are seen to be similar struggles in Palestine. It will need to explore the experience of Ethiopians, Mizrahi and other Jews of color in Israel. These aren’t easy conversations. But friendship and allyship aren’t supposed to be easy.
In the upcoming weeks the light of the Hanukkah menorahs, the lights of the Christmas tree, and the lights of Kwanzaa kinaras will be lit. I’ll bring with me the blazing memory of Lee Horowitz who crossed a basketball court to illumine something in me. He did not have to admit a poor Black kid to the camp and he certainly didn’t have to bridge the chasm in race, religions, and age, and care about what was going on in my life. I always think about him around this time of year. During these almost intersecting holidays, I want to challenge you to try to inch closer to the other. Ask yourself if you do not have any Black friends then why not? How can you remedy that? I ask the same of my Black sisters and brothers about having Jewish friends. Challenge yourself to bring one of your candles to another when their lights are blown out. Go to a vigil or rally for the next young unarmed Black life that is taken. I will be sure to come when another Jewish cemetery is defaced. Do not tolerate a racist joke being said behind my back. I will check any friends who utter anti-Semitic words of you. Don’t unfriend me if you disagree with my politics. I’ll ask you to coffee the next time I see one of your posts that upsets me. Be there for me when they try to firehose my flame out. And I’ll be there for you, bringing more oil to keep the miracle going.
The Rev. Charles L. Howard, PhD is the University Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania and Scholar Advisor at the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center. He can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Chaz_Howard