How One Congregation Brings Diverse Communities Together, One Conversation at a Time

Fuse
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Tehran Freeman is a dreadlocked, 30-year-old rapper from the city of Chester, PA. Bonnie Breit is a gray-haired member of Congregation Ohev Shalom in the neighboring upper middle-class suburb of Wallingford. Now here they are, sharing stories, family photos and friendship over coffee in a local Starbucks.

Unusual? Maybe to some.

But if you know anything about Congregation Ohev Shalom and their Solomon Schechter Award Winning program, FUSE, this scene is not at all surprising.

FUSE is designed to foster understanding and deeper relationships among Jews, Presbyterians, Quakers, Muslims, and African Americans — creating a shared sense of destiny and purpose across religious, racial and geographic lines.

It succeeds because it’s built on conversations.

 

The Missing Piece from Most Inter-Community Programs

 Explains Ohev Shalom Rabbi Jeremy Gerber, a FUSE founder, “Partnering to build a house or to bring food or to start a garden, that happens in the community. What wasn’t happening is just talking.” 

FUSE stands for Fellowship of Urban Suburban Engagement. Rabbi Gerber sees the program helping to “fuse” the communities of Chester and Wallingford back together. (Ohev Shalom was founded in Chester almost 100 years ago.) “FUSE can be the spark that makes a difference and leads to real change.”

FUSE grew out of the nostalgia and concern that many Ohev Shalom members felt for Chester. Once a thriving community, home to many of the congregation’s older residents, Chester now has one of the highest per-capita crime rates in the country.

The program engenders deep, honest, unprejudiced conversations both across and within communities. At the same time, it builds relationships between individuals of different backgrounds.


Launching with No Preconceived Notions

The first FUSE event, called World Café, took place on October 12, 2015. Being Columbus Day, many people were off from work and about 100 residents from the Chester and Wallingford areas came.

There was a facilitator, but no agenda.

Rabbi Gerber explains, “Enough groups have come into Chester and said, ‘We’ve got a logo, we’ve got a plan, we’ve got two years of funding and this is what we’re going to do for you. That’s not what the people of Chester want.”

FUSE, instead, said: “we want to work with you; you tell us what you need.”

The groups spoke about race and racism, violence, community needs and the black/white-urban/suburban divide. “What narratives have you heard about your communities?” the facilitators asked. “What stereotypes do you have?”


Opening Eyes and Minds

Ohev Shalom congregants met people who had lost parents, siblings and children to the violence in Chester. At the same time, they learned that there is still a great deal of civic pride. Many Chester residents love the city as much as Ohev Shalom members once did. Congregants also heard about the town’s surprising lack of even the most basic resources, including a grocery store.

African Americans got to hear Caucasian Jews talk about their own issues. What’s it like to be in the majority at some times and in the minority at others? Chester residents didn’t know that Jews had been legally barred from buying homes in many local neighborhoods. Or that there were, and still are, country clubs that Jews cannot join.

 “I’ve been waiting 50 years for this conversation,” one Chester resident told Rabbi Gerber.

 

From Community-Wide to Personal

At the end of the event, the facilitator opened another door: “If there is someone in this room that you have never met before and you would like to have a conversation, we invite you to share your phone number or email.”

That’s when Tehran approached Bonnie. He had never come across anyone like her, a woman who grew up in the South and experienced desegregation firsthand.

That day, a Presbyterian minister from neighboring Swathmore also became friends with a Chester community organizer. In all, ten pairs connected at the World Café.

Now called Unprejudiced Conversation Dinners, these meetings take place every month, alternating between locations in Wallingford and Chester. People continue to share emails and phone numbers.

A grant from Presbyter of Philadelphia — a confederation of more than 300 area churches — pays for the gift cards that participants use to buy that first cup of coffee or meal.

“If I pick up the tab,” explains Bonnie, who is also on the FUSE Steering Committee, “I’m in a power position. The next time, it’s supposed to be your turn and you may have to make the choice of having a conversation with me or putting minutes on your phone or paying for your kids’ lunch. The gift cards remove that inequality and set us both, at that moment, on a level playing field.”

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Friendships and Understanding Grow

Since that first meeting, Tehran, his family and Bonnie have shared many meals and picnics together. Now she’s helping him improve his resume and mentoring him as he pursues a more traditional career. He, meanwhile, advises Bonnie on Social Media and how it can help support her personal and business interests.

Another friendship blossomed between FUSE co-founders, Rabbi Gerber and Cory Long, a Chester community activist, and their families. Cory, a former radio DJ, supports his family by running a ballroom, while leading violence prevention programs for area youth.

Through relationships like these, congregants of Ohev Shalom have come to understand the unique challenges African Americans face, and some of the ways they can help.


Wallingford Networks Reach Chester

Rabbi Gerber notes that when an Ohev Shalom congregant needs a doctor, a lawyer or a plumber, they know who to call and how to find the help they need.   

In Chester, where even finding a grocery store can be a challenge, resources like these don’t exist. Rabbi Gerber and other area residents and clergy are trying to help fill those gaps.

When a Chester teenager, a FUSE participant, was charged with a crime, Rabbi Gerber visited him and contacted his court-appointed attorney. Not many boys in his situation get a rabbi to show an interest. The boy was eventually cleared. 

Not all interventions are so successful. But Rabbi Gerber believes the effort and interest are having a positive effect on relations between the two communities.

 

Keeping the Faith 

Just being a part of FUSE can pose a challenge for the African American community. Says Bonnie, “Many work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and they can’t always find the time to continue FUSE dialogs.”

FUSE also has to fight the ghosts of so many programs that have come and gone through Chester. “Why are you still here?” people ask. “When does this end?”

“It doesn’t,” replies Rabbi Gerber. “We’re a part of this community. We’re here to stay.”

FUSE isn’t a one-shot program. FUSE is one community reaching out to another to offer ongoing friendship and assistance.

“The onus is on us to continue the dialog,” adds Rabbi Gerber “and to keep the people engaged.”


A Congregation-Wide Effort to Repair the World 

Members of Congregation Ohev Shalom can thank FUSE for heightening their sensitivity to racial issues. Some gain this through direct participation. Some, through friendships with those who participate.

This past Yom Kippur, Rabbi Gerber invited Chester resident Michael Miller to speak from the Bimah. Through his speech and a poem that he wrote and recited, Michael helped open the congregation’s eyes to the struggles of African Americans and the complexities of their situation.

Response was overwhelmingly positive. It further demonstrated the need for programs like FUSE to build bridges of understanding between communities.

 

Bring FUSE to Your Synagogue

FUSE recently received the USCJ Solomon Schechter Highest Award for Innovation and Impact. Now Ohev Shalom is offering to help other congregations develop FUSE in their area.

For information and help to plan and launch FUSE in your community, email [email protected].

 

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