Two prominent student organizations gathered yesterday to compare what seemed like two very different stories: the American antislavery movement and the Old Testament-era Jewish flight from Egypt.
Cornell’s Black Students United and the Hillel Jewish Student Union met at the St. James AME Zion Church in downtown Ithaca for “Exodus! Towards the Depths of Our Past,” an examination of exodus narratives in African-American and Jewish history. As part of the University’s new “Breaking Bread” initiative, the event featured lectures, performances and discussion by members of both organizations and the larger Ithaca and Cornell community, with the stated goal of achieving “exodus from mental bondage towards greater historical and cultural understanding between the two communities.”
BSU and Hillel-JSU first partnered to organize a joint trip to New Orleans, sending members of both groups to the city in August. The trip’s success and a desire to continue their relationship led to the idea for Exodus. “[We] started planning in February,” says Hillel President Amy Pearlman ’09, noting that they were hoping to achieve “a semi-informal setting where we could talk and get to know each other.” In his opening remarks, BSU Co-President Ernie Jolly echoed Pearlman’s sentiments, adding that he hoped to see the two groups “unite under a common goal — to celebrate exodus and freedom.”
The event began with a lecture by Reverend Kenneth Clarke, who spoke about the connection between black churches and the Underground Railroad, focusing on St. James’s own unique role in the anti-slavery movement. The church, founded in 1833, functioned as an Underground Railroad station (former pastors Germain Loguen and Thomas James were Underground Railroad conductors) and played host to famous abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Clarke closed by describing the event as the “type of enriching experience that helps [us] understand the commonalities, yet differences that make for an exodus people.”
After a performance by a cappella gospel group Baraka Kwa Wimbo, BSU Alumni Liaison Max Aggrey ’11 spoke about his own view of exodus, experienced through his parents’ immigration to the United States in the 1960s, and encouraged Exodus attendees to approach the narrative with an open mind. “Let us reach a vision of unity,” said Aggrey, “[and] recognize the virtues of an exodus from thinking only of the minute details that segment us.”
Prof. Margaret Washington, history, continued the historical examination started by Clarke, speaking on the historical relationship between religion and black slaves.
“Enslaved people devised their own spirituality,” said Washington, citing prayer houses as one example. “African-Americans always merged the sacred and the secular, and devised a coherent narrative of themselves as a nation within a nation.”
The exodus narrative for African-Americans became, according to Washington, the “story of the weak uplifted by God,” a central theme that symbolized “God righting wrongs.”
Alex Haber ’08, the outgoing vice president of Hillel-JSU, spoke about his understanding of the exodus narrative through the Jewish celebration of Passover.
“Exodus for me means a continuous movement, a continuous resilience despite so many hardships in the past.”
Hillel-JSU executive director Rabbi Ed Rosenthal continued Haber’s discussion of Passover by speaking about the role of exodus and freedom in Jewish history, recounting the Jewish escape from Egypt. Rosenthal spoke of the yearly commemoration of the exodus — the Passover Seder — as a tradition “commanded” by tradition.
Rosenthal then connected the idea of exodus to its result, examining the concept of freedom. “Freedom is knowing that from our common experience under slavery in Egypt comes a collective responsibility,” he said, noting that this collective responsibility created a connection among Jews worldwide. “[We will] know freedom when all people can celebrate that which makes us unique while at the same time embrace that which makes us universal,” he said, adding “then we will [also] know peace.”
The lectures were followed by a discussion over dinner, where, in a literal nod to the “Breaking Bread” initiative, both challah and cornbread were served as part of a menu designed to reflect aspects of both African-American and Jewish cultures. Attendees were encouraged to consider discussion questions such as “what are some of the differences and similarities between the Jewish slavery/oppression stories and the black slavery/oppression stories? To what extent are these stories comparable and relatable?”
Reactions were overwhelmingly positive. St. James congregation member Tree Cook called the event “wonderful” and the speakers “illuminating and insightful,” adding that it was “interesting to hear different people’s focus.”
Dan Baer ’08, Hillel-JSU campus relations chair, said the event “hit on a lot of important issues,” noting that “[the speakers] weren’t afraid to cross over into uncomfortable areas and didn’t limit themselves.”
Aggrey remarked on the ease with which the two organizations interacted, saying “sometimes when you bring two groups together, people worry about the discrepancies between the two or the social awkwardness, but I haven’t found that here. Everyone seems comfortable, [despite] maybe being a little out of their comfort zone.”
Members of both BSU and Hillel-JSU intend to continue their partnership. Said Alayna Camp ’10, “seeing how [the two groups] kept the relationship going is nice to see” and both Pearlman and Hillel-JSU employee Lauren Ciminello ’07 voiced interest in organizing more events with BSU, with Pearlman calling Exodus “the first of many events” and Ciminello adding that it is “just the beginning of what we want to accomplish together.”
With the hundreds of student groups at Cornell, the partnership between BSU and Hillel-JSU reflects a new way to improve understanding among diverse campus organizations.
BSU co-president Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo ’08 said that the BSU had wanted to “branch out” on campus and that part of that initiative was maintaining the relationship established with Hillel-JSU.
Added Baer: “It’s important to support each other … when there’s almost 1,000 student groups, it’s important to partner. [It] provides a means to get out in the community and work on different issues.”
St. James’ Reverend Michael Bell summed up the partnership and the event most succinctly when he said, “It created the opportunity for unity.”