My Conversation with Bishop Isaac Melton

Bishop Isaac Melton and me (our masks were down for a minute to take a selfie)

Ever since the Black Lives Matter marches to protest racism in this country, I have been thinking a lot about my own relationship with the black community.  Every person, black or white, is created in the image of God and therefore we must care for everyone.  The Mishna in Pirkei Avot is very explicit in its assessment that “chaviv adam she’nivra b’tzelem,” or man is cherished because he was created in God’s image.  We Jews perhaps can appreciate prejudice against minorities more than most people as we have suffered from antisemitism for thousands of years.  As such, it is natural for us to empathize with the plight of any vulnerable minority group.  Despite this commonality between our communities, the reality is that we often feel out of sync.

I’ve heard members of the Jewish community criticize the black community for not responding to years of prejudice in the way that we believe our own community did.  Our methods of protest are often different, and many have asked why the black community has not set up the internal infrastructure to lift each other up that the Jewish community has.  Furthermore, while the elimination of racism and all prejudice should be a value that unites us, many Jewish Americans are not comfortable supporting the Black Lives Matter movement due to the pro-BDS statements it’s had in its platform in the past.  Most recently, an occurrence which should have brought our communities together has been the source of more divide. When DeSean Jackson published anti-Semitic posts on social media, my own community was disheartened when so few black football players spoke out against him.

All that being said, when these conversations are had in my own community, they typically take place only amongst each other, with little to no exchange with our black neighbors.  I wanted to actually speak to a member of that community to hear their perspective directly from the source.  As such, this past week I met with Bishop Isaac Melton outside Long Beach City Hall.  The Bishop is the spiritual leader of the Christian Light Missionary Baptist Church in Long Beach.  He has ministered in that particular Church for over 12 years and he has ministered for a total for 30 years.  He is married with one daughter and he lives in Freeport.  I want to thank Sepi Djavaheri from the UJA who helped facilitate an introduction with the Bishop.

We sat down at one of the park benches next to the fountain at City Hall and we had a meaningful conversation about all the issues above.  One thing that came across from our conversation was, to my mind, how different the Jewish and black experience has been in America.  The Bishop told me of one day 40 years ago when he was walking down the street in St. Albans, Queens, where he grew up, when nine police officers surrounded him and ordered him to put his hands up.   He was scared that if he put his hands down they would think that he was going for a gun and they would shoot him.  Additionally, he was nervous at that moment they would plant drugs on him in order to frame him.  After a few tense minutes, one cop said to the others that he was the wrong guy that they were looking for and they drove off without apologizing to him.  Bishop Melton told me that that moment still haunts him to this day.  Every time that he hears police sirens he is reminded of this event.  Furthermore, traumatic events similar to what he experienced have also been experienced by 95% of black men with whom he grew up.  Bishop Melton made it clear that he believes that many policemen are wonderful people.  However, there is a natural fear/aversion to the police force because of the experience of many in the black community with law enforcement. These experiences that he and others have gone through have affected them, and that trauma remains.

Through our conversation, I was trying to relate the Jewish experience of anti-Semitism to the black experience of racism in America.  However, I think the black community’s experience differs from ours in a significant way.  That is, economic opportunity.  We Jews tend to look at our history in this country and view ourselves as having risen above the antisemitism to make something of ourselves in this country.  And while this is largely true, we must honestly accept that we were historically afforded socioeconomic opportunities that were not available to the black community.  Bishop Melton argued that still to this day, the black community must overcome additional obstacles in order to better themselves.  For example, during the pandemic, many black students did not have internet access at home so they were unable to receive any education at this time.  He told me that in Long Beach there are very few black police officers and it would be so wonderful to mentor black police officers that could serve in predominantly black districts to ease tensions between the police and the public.  He feels that a lot more can be done to provide opportunities for blacks to get jobs, earn a living and live decent lives, but not enough is currently being done.

He asked me point blank, “Why do so many people hate blacks?”  I didn’t know how to respond at first.  But then I said that sometimes when you don’t interact with the “other,” whomever the “other” is, you often make associations with the other by what you read and very often we read about high crime rates in inner-city minority communities.  He told me that crime in inner-city communities is a serious problem and he explained that if someone needs to earn a living and he is not provided the opportunity to do so, then sometimes he has no choice but to sell drugs.  He wasn’t at all justifying that behavior; rather, he was explaining the reality.  Therein lies a significant difference between the Jewish and black communities in America.  Yes, there is much antisemitism which we must continue to fight in this country, but, Baruch Hashem, Jews and especially modern orthodox Jews who are engaged in the American scene enjoy a relatively high standard of living.  We do hold positions of power in a variety of areas, and our children have role models encouraging them and paving the way for them, so that that can be their future as well.  This is much less the case for black Americans. Bishop Melton believes that the political and business leaders of today are holding the black community back from accessing that world.

We as Jews have a lot of resources and a lot of political connections to achieve what we can achieve, but the Bishop feels that the black community currently does not.  As such, they need help from the white community to lend them a hand lend them support, in order to help lift them out of the dire predicament they are in.  He feels that as a community, we are not helping.  He said that recently some financially successful black people have pledged to help black communities but the need is far greater than the current resources available in the black community can address on their own.

I asked the Bishop why he thinks so few football players spoke out against DeSean Jackson’s anti-Semitic remarks.  What I gleaned from his remarks is that while most members of his community are certainly not anti-Semitic and believe that every man and woman was created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with respect, there is a sense that white people, including Jews, should be supporting the black community more.  They do not see us as needing their support.  This may be me reading into his response, but I got the feeling that certainly when Jews were gunned down in Pittsburgh or Poway, their community stood by our side, but I am not sure if many football players appreciated the severity of DeSean Jackson’s comment or saw how potentially dangerous it was.  They view us as a privileged successful community, and don’t view us as a targeted people.  This is an area where I believe that dialogue between our communities can be so powerful.  In speaking with Bishop Melton, it seemed to me that the black community does not appreciate the extent of the current increase in antisemitism.  It is not in their day to day awareness, and they haven’t appreciated that we need them to stand up for us, too.  The Bishop told me in no uncertain terms that he views me as a friend and if I ever call him and need anything, he will be there for me.

I asked him what he thought of the violence during some of the Black Lives Matter protests.  He told me that he follows the path of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who followed the Christian path of non-violent civil disobedience and he speaks out against those who use violence to protest their cause.  He pointed out to me that in the past, law enforcement officers used attack dogs and water hoses to stop non-violent protests but he admitted that that is not the case now.  He did mention, however, that there was one particular nearby Long Island community where a non-violent protest was planned and he was told that the whites in that community were planning to come out armed against the protest; therefore, the blacks decided not to protest there.  He also told me that a lot of white people came out to march for various Black Lives Matter protests.  However, none of these marchers have called him afterwards to find out how they can help further.  He believes that the goal of the marches is more than to generate empathy, but it’s to effectuate change.

I told him about the Black Lives Matter platform a few years ago where they supported the BDS movement and he told me that he wasn’t aware of it.  I began discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with him a bit and I’m not sure where he stands on the issue but we had a very cordial discussion about the topic and he understood my position.

I thought Bishop Melton and I had a great conversation for an hour and a half.  I learned a lot from him, and specifically gained a greater appreciation for the fear and the hurt and the feeling of hopelessness that many black people in our country feel.  As much as some Jews have said that they fear that a time is coming when we Jews will be unwanted in this country and will be forced to Ieave, I think that the mentality of the black community is far more fearful and hopeless than the present day Jewish community.  I know that many people reading this blog will take issue with a number of claims that the Bishop made in our conversation.   I know that a lot of people reading this blog will say that the black people themselves should do more for their own community.  I don’t have enough knowledge to fairly address every claim made on either side, nor do I think it is necessary to do so.  What stood out to me is the importance of sharing our own experiences and also listening to the experiences of others.  We need to talk, not only of our own fears and struggles, but also speak to the black community about theirs.  We need to ensure that they understand us and that we understand them.  I think both communities tend to live in our own echo chambers to some extent, and we will understand each other more when we engage with each other.

Bishop Melton and I definitely didn’t agree on everything, but I value our conversation.  It was clear to me that he is such a lovely person, and someone I am now glad to know.  I saw firsthand how so many people walking by the fountain by City Hall stopped to say hello to him; you could tell that he has such a warm relationship with his parishioners.  I asked Bishop Melton to let me know how I could help in practice to provide greater opportunities for black people in our local community and we hope to speak further about this.  I reached out to someone who was formerly an “other” to me, and I hope and pray that I left our engagement as a more knowledgeable and empathic individual.  In a nation full of toxic discourse leading to no discourse, I call upon other members of our community to start conversations with the “other” in the hopes of healing our nation.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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