Longtime friends Brandon Colvin and Jacob Smith saw a gap in understanding between their communities as an opportunity to build a bridge across their cultures. For five years, they’ve collaborated on sold-out dinners that bring Black and Jewish communities together in Detroit, with the goal of promoting one thing: trust.
The pair recently held a cross-cultural Shabbat meal at the Detroit Historical Museum that was catered by a Black chef.
“There’s situations where Jews were not good to Black people, Black people were not good to Jews, but … it makes me proud just as a Black Jew to know that there are people that want to … have a conversation,” said Shane Sperling, who has attended Smith’s and Colvin’s events for years.
Smith is Jewish and from Detroit’s suburbs. Colvin grew up Christian in Montgomery, Alabama. They met more than a decade ago in Detroit’s startup scene and bonded over a love of music and their communities.
“Brandon … started bringing me into spaces, predominantly Black spaces,” Smith said. “There’s kind of a standoffishness that you can sometimes feel as a White person coming into the city, just being honest in my experience. And what Brandon allowed for me was to step into certain spaces … and had just the most incredible experiences.”
Colvin said Smith has been a “gateway and a doorway into Jewish culture.”
“I didn’t realize that I could have this type of brotherhood across another culture until I met Jacob,” Colvin said.
A couple of years into their friendship, the two realized that many members of their respective communities didn’t know each other, so they formed The Coalition Series, which works to unite Black and Jewish people in Detroit through food, art and music. They hold several cross-culture events every year in collaboration with local Black and Jewish organizations.
There have been periods of strong alliance between the Black and Jewish communities in the United States, particularly during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. However, there have also been periods of tension and conflict, and their relationship remains complex.
After many Black Americans moved north to Detroit during the Great Migration of the 20th century, discriminatory housing laws led to overcrowding. Many White residents, including White Jews, were able to move to the suburbs – perpetuating a segregation that persists today.
“When we have these divisive comments that get made, I think they’re really missing the space to sort of reach over the aisle, to join hands and sort of be together and on the same page,” Colvin said.
Both Colvin and Smith believe the two groups need to find moments of solidarity within their shared struggles.
Colvin noted that even though their cultures are different in a lot of ways, both communities have a history that involves oppression. But they said getting into an “oppression Olympics sort of conversation” is “counterproductive.”
“I think the real conversation should be: what can these two communities come up with given their shared understanding of what it is like to achieve in spite of?” Colvin said.