Last year, in spring 2022, the Center for Jewish Studies and the Department of African American Studies embarked on a joint initiative to encourage cross-disciplinary study of African Americans and Jews. The initiative will consist of two main components: field trips to cities that are historically and culturally significant for both populations, and scholarships for undergraduates taking courses in both Jewish Studies and African American Studies.
Launching the initiative in early April of 2021, the two programs took a diverse group of twelve students to New York to learn about life in Harlem and the Lower East Side. Led by CJS Director Tony Michels and African American Studies Chair Ethelene Whitmire, the trip left a deep impression on the students who attended. For most, it was their first time in New York City.
“People on our trip were so curious and passionate about cultures other than their own,” remarks Yaakov Segal, a sophomore double-majoring in Jewish Studies and Political Science. At a group dinner one evening, Yaakov sat across from senior Ayan Hassan, who is Muslim, and the two ended up in a far-ranging conversation about their religious beliefs and identities. They discovered many points of overlap, from ideas about the afterlife to their respective decisions to wear a kippah and hijab.
For Ayan, a Legal Studies major who grew up in the Milwaukee area, highlights of the trip included the Eldridge Steet Synagogue, where she noted similarities to mosques. She also enjoyed the Tenement Museum, whose president, CJS alumna Annie Polland (BA ’95), offered the group a preview of an exhibit that will recreate the apartment where an African American couple once lived.
For freshman Axell Boomer, who plans to major in History, “following Professor Michels through the streets of the Lower East Side brought the content of his course ‘The American Jewish Experience’ to life.” Among other sights, Axell was impressed by the building where The Forward newspaper had its beginnings. “Observing the Forverts building towering over the neighborhood demonstrated the influence and impact of the Yiddish paper,” explains Axell. The trip also reinforced lessons of African American history. “Walking on the grounds of New York’s Municipal Slave Market,” Axell says, “revealed the trade’s proximity to Wall Street.”
Rachel Hale, a sophomore pursuing a certificate in Jewish Studies, says she enjoyed “talking with new students I met on the trip about our different backgrounds, activism, and aspects of Jewish and Black identity (and just having fun together).”
Other high points included a dinner at Melba’s Restaurant in Harlem with Letters and Science Dean Eric Wilcots and UW alumni such as Jerry Shereshewsky (BA ’68), who later remarked that he “adored meeting some of the students and getting a whiff of the amazing time they’re having in Madison.” The following evening, the students were treated to dinner by Edward Grossman (BA ’70) in Greenwich Village. Crucial support for the field trip was also provided by Julie and Peter Weil (BA ’70, JD ’74) and Michael Berkowitz (PhD ’89).
Michels began to formulate the initiative two years ago in conversations with Professor Whitmire and CJS supporters such as Victor Temkin (BA ’57, LLB ’60), who shared his excitement about the idea. We intend this to be the first in a series of such trips in the years ahead.