MONTCLAIR, NJ - More than a month has passed since Montclair Rabbis challenged comments made by James Harris during a December 31 community meeting. Since then, an interfaith group of leaders have continued the conversation among themselves and their respective congregations.

Pastor Campbell Singleton of Union Baptist Church of Montclair hosted a gathering on Wednesday with nearly 70 people in attendance. He stated that he felt the dialogue was necessary in order for residents of various faiths and ethnicities to understand one another.

Singleton explained that the evening was framed around equal storytelling from all in attendance with an emphasis on racism and antisemitism.

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In attendance, were Rabbi Elliot Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Pastor David Shaw of Union Congregational Church and leaders from Temple Ner Tamid and a mosque. Fourth Ward Councilor Renee Baskerville was also in attendance.

Greenstein, who made headlines for calling out antisemitic comments made by Harris during the meeting, was part of a discussion with Singleton. Following the dialogue, the group broke into small groups to discuss among themselves.

Singleton spoke of PTSD and the African holocaust and Greenstein shared experiences of the Jewish Holocaust.

"Racism is not just hurtful, but lethal. Blacks and Jews have many areas in common," said Singleton. 

Greenstein added, "We are a traumatized people. Will we let the rage be a tool of the oppressors?" 

"One third of the lives of Jews were taken, it is amazing that we survived," Greenstein continued.

Harris has since apologized for his remarks made at the December 30th community meeting. He formally served as the education chairperson for the Montclair NAACP, but was suspended for six months following the remarks. He is also the president of New Jersey Association of Black Educators (NJABE). However, during the commentary, he stated that he was speaking on behalf of NJABE, not the NAACP.

Following his commentary at the meeting, Harris was immediately rebuked by Rabbi David Greenstein after making remarks about Hasidic Jews. Residents were at odds on social media, which resulted in Mayor Robert Jackson issuing a statement and holding an emergency meeting with religious leaders the following Monday.

Singleton said, "Perception-checking is necessary to help us test if what I just observed is true. We need to engage one another to break the hate and get to know one another beyond the negative narratives."

In the aftermath of the statements that Harris made, Montclair clergy had gathered together with Harris to discuss with other community leaders the reason why the comments were antisemitic and hurtful. Singleton expressed that he wanted to continue the discussion for their respective congregations and that he hopes that Wednesday's meeting was the first of many.

"It is not helpful or hopeful to be hateful or hurtful. It is helpful and hopeful to hear each other, suspend judgment and refused to rehearse negative narratives," said Singleton.

Singleton further expressed that he felt many African-Americans may not understand how Harris is commentary was offensive.

Leila Brown questioned why Harris' statements caused such an uproar and resulted in him being publicly disciplined, but when Montclair's Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker made comments regarding racist teachers, that there was no uproar and he was not disciplined or removed. 

To date, there has not been a meeting regarding Parker's statements, added Singleton.

She said, "This is hurtful to see our pain doesn't count as much."

Singleton expressed that in meeting with the rabbis and Harris, they were taught what antisemitism is. He added that he didn't feel that many people understood and needed to be taught, in order to better understand one another.

Nick from Congregation Shomrei Emmunah said, "It was so powerful to sit next to someone and hear what they had to say and not listening to them through the TV. This hit my heart."

 

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