With America convulsing from days of rage, protest and street violence, Malcolm Gissen says he feels “the same anger, hurt and despair as my black brothers and sisters.”
How does Gissen, a white Jewish man who lives in San Francisco, know how they feel? As co-leader of the San Francisco African American-Jewish Unity Group, he has been in constant contact with the group’s black members, all reeling from the killing of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police, and the subsequent outbreak of civil unrest.
His report is bleak.
“My black friends are telling me they have no hope,” says the longtime financial adviser who used to work as a lawyer. “White people have to understand that.”
Keeping in touch is routine among the 125 members of the group, which formed in 2016 and meets monthly, although the pandemic has forced the participants onto Zoom recently. Details can be found at sfunitygroup.org.
It’s not new for Bay Area Jews and African Americans to collaborate. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and the San Francisco Interfaith Council have been fostering such relationships for years, and a number of synagogues and black churches often engage in pulpit swaps.
The unity group, however, was a purely grassroots effort from the get-go. And while forging friendships has always been a chief goal of the gatherings, the group (roughly half black and half Jewish) also has tried to affect real change.
“We have a steering committee focused on criminal justice reform as well as racial and economic justice,” says Howard Lindsay, Gissen’s co-leader and a minister at Grace Tabernacle Community Church in the Bayview-Hunters Point area of San Francisco. “People need opportunities. If you block them out of economic opportunities, you create this permanent underclass.”
Among the group’s signal achievements was the passage two years ago of AB 2138, which allows ex-felons to be eligible to earn licenses in cosmetology and other professional fields. Unity group members saw the injustice of denying work opportunities to people with past criminal convictions, so they approached state Assembly member David Chiu, who told the group he would introduce the bill if they wrote the text.
And they did.
“We knew there were 200 occupations that ban anyone with felony conviction from working,” Gissen says. “It made no sense that we parole people and then they cannot get a job or a license to work in occupations like cosmetology. We drafted a bill with the ACLU” and gave it to Chiu, whose district covers the eastern half of San Francisco.
The bill passed both houses of the state Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2018.
The unity group wasn’t formed with such achievements in mind. It came together during Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House, as the group’s progressive membership considered a Trump presidency a clear danger to Jews and minorities.
Gissen says he has long felt a kinship with the African American community. While a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School in the late 1960s, he spent time in the South fighting for civil rights. From that experience he started Project Understanding, a program that brought low-income black children from Mississippi to Wisconsin for summer recreation. The program grew and continued for some 40 years, involving hundreds of children.
Along the same lines, Gissen’s group co-leader, Lindsay, says, “Social justice has always been important in my life.”
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Lindsay, 49, grew up in the Bronx, New York, becoming an executive in investment banking and finance. But later in life he felt a calling to the ministry, and was eventually ordained at a multidenominational evangelical seminary. Today he serves as associate pastor for social justice ministries at Grace Tabernacle.
After a pastor friend suggested he go to a unity group meeting, Lindsay got involved and took on the co-leadership role with Gissen two years ago. Together they have assembled a steering committee and refined the group’s areas of focus, such as criminal justice reform.
As a student at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Lindsay studied the Hebrew Bible, but joining the unity group expanded his appreciation for Judaism and Jewish culture.
“Repair the world, right?” he says, alluding to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. “I never heard the phrase until I came to the group. It became so much more apparent that this justice angle is part of the reading of the Torah, and it’s how we can work together.”
For Lindsay, the upheaval that followed the recent murders of Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia has been painfully familiar. But even in the midst of the civil unrest, he keeps his eyes on the prize.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Lindsay says. “You remember people who gave up their lives in the march towards increased human rights. The Constitution, the preamble, the Declaration [of Independence], lofty ideals but not intended for all human beings to be included, but you have to hold them to it. Somehow we have to keep fighting, keep pushing, and we just can’t give up. If we do, then we are completely giving up on our calling, our divine right as beings created in the likeness of God.”
Gissen says the friendships forged in the group have made a difference.
“We just want to bring people together to talk about what’s going on in the community, how we can support what we like and change what we don’t like,” he says. “By coming together, eating and drinking together, sharing ideas and life stories, people cheer up in the room. There is a great deal of affection and love between the people who participate.”
Both Gissen and Lindsay say the group concerns are not limited to issues of concern to the black community.
Acts of anti-Semitic violence, such as the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, have been the topic of many group discussions. Both men say the group members have each other’s backs.
And in the process, they all learn more about each other’s cultures.
“Last week,” Lindsay says, “I wished a friend a happy Shavuot, and she was really surprised.”