I sat down to dinner with 10 strangers on Tuesday evening. We were Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Asian, Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ — all of us New Yorkers. And as we got to know one another, first tentatively and then with more gusto, we broke bread together. (Kosher vegan wraps, better than they sound.)
One dinner companion shared that he was a natural introvert, more inclined to stay home given the chance. Another attendee and I discovered a commonality: he had left a job in finance to become a pastor. I had left a job in law to work for the Jewish community. Then another commonality: the church in Brooklyn where he serves as pastor is just three blocks away from the apartment I lived in as a young boy. My family left Brooklyn long before he started preaching. But had we been there at the same time, those three blocks might as well have been three time zones. Our respective bubbles — his as a Black pastor and mine as a Modern orthodox Jewish boy — would have kept us apart.
What finally brought us together? We had come to launch Breaking Bread, Building Bonds, a citywide initiative that aims to bridge divides between diverse New Yorkers by having them share a meal. The goal: 1,000 dinners, each with 10 people of different backgrounds. In giving 10,000 people the opportunity to get past the stereotypes and false assumptions that most of us harbor — consciously or not — we find out that despite our differences in appearance, ethnicity, and faith, we have far more in common than would be expected. Those 10,000 can become ambassadors to far more.
Hard to believe, but the self-proclaimed introvert at the table was Mayor Eric Adams, our partner in this effort, whose Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes and Community Affairs Unit is running the program with UJA’s financial support. We’re reimbursing up to $150 for the cost of each dinner.
The mayor extolled this initiative as one of the most important he’s undertaken since taking office. He said, “Even if we get over our economy, if we defeat Covid, even if we're able to build all the housing we want, and if we get all the violence off our streets — if we do all those things, and we still have people who don't respect each other as neighbors, then we fail as a city.”
We support initiatives like this and many others because we tragically know where ignorance and hatred lead. Over the last few years, more and more of this hatred has been directed at visibly Jewish people. That’s why, in addition to funding for community security, we significantly support a broad range of people, programs, and nonprofits that aim to educate, connect, and break barriers: trips to Israel for a wide range of New Yorkers, service projects that bring Jews and non-Jews together, opportunities for rabbis and ministers to have conversations about racism and antisemitism, community organizers who knit together different populations. In Brooklyn, one wonderfully harmonious outcome: a joint choir, made up of singers from a synagogue and a church.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Music has a way of transcending and connecting — of giving voice to our shared humanity. Last night, I had the honor of experiencing another example of this when I represented UJA at the “We Are Here” concert in Carnegie Hall, featuring music written in ghettos and concentration camps. The concert was held on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated today, which marks the liberation of Auschwitz 78 years ago.
Both the performers and those of us introducing the performances reflected the diversity of New York, including cantors and rabbis of every denomination, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the consul general of Germany, Harvey Fierstein, Chita Rivera, the LaGuardia High School Choir, to name just a few.
The selection I introduced was called “Street Singer of the Warsaw Ghetto” by Reuven Lifshitz. It tells the story of a young child who played music on the street for donations after losing his entire family in the ghetto. Reuven not only survived the war; he enjoyed a prolific musical career. But so many whose music was performed last night did not survive. We heard a particularly haunting nigun (melody) of Ani Ma’amin (“I Believe”) that was composed and sung on a train from Warsaw to the Treblinka death camp; though the composer perished, his music miraculously survived.
To sing, to compose, to dare to create beauty amid so much darkness was an act of subtle resistance that deeply inspires still today. Some of this music has been nearly forgotten over time, making its performance at Carnegie Hall, one of most celebrated performance stages in the world, ever more poignant.
Seventy-eight years after Auschwitz, we have surely not eradicated Jewish hate. To the contrary. It’s gained traction in America in ways that were unthinkable just a short time ago. And we have witnessed the pain of other minorities who face brutal bigotry and prejudice. Whether we break bread together or sing together, this is truly essential work with a clear goal: creating communities of respect and understanding, where differences are not merely “tolerated” — but welcomed and embraced.