clergy meeting
IMAGE COURTESY BOB DMYT/PIXABAY

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

A group of Montclair-area clergy and community leaders has issued an open letter addressing a meeting on Jan. 6 to discuss how to build unity and understanding in Montclair in the wake of a NAACP official’s remarks criticized as anti-Semitic.

The letter called on all residents and township leaders to work together.

The meeting included 12 members of the community, representing the Montclair NAACP, Congregation Shomrei Emunah, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, New Calvary Baptist Church, Temple Ner Tamid, Masjid Al-Wadud, Trinity Presbyterian Church and Temple Sholom of West Essex.

The clergy meeting was called following a Fourth Ward community meeting on Dec. 30 where NAACP official and New Jersey Association of Black Educators chair James Harris made remarks concerning education and housing that were criticized as being anti-Semitic. He has been placed on a six-month suspension from the NAACP.

The clergy statement was issued to the community late Friday afternoon by Rabbi David Greenstein of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, who was among the participants. The meeting has not released any information yet on next steps, including a new interfaith organization.

The entire statement is available below.

We, the undersigned, are community leaders and clergy serving the people of Montclair, including people of all racial, ethnic and religious identities, sexual orientations and political affiliations.

We came together on Jan. 6, 2020, at the invitation of Mayor Robert Jackson in the aftermath of the meeting of Montclair’s Fourth Ward on Dec. 30, 2019. That meeting raised many concerns in our community, highlighting the challenges facing us all during these times of anxiety, confusion and mistrust. By meeting together, our goal was to learn from one another and begin to chart a path forward.

At this meeting we came together in a spirit of generosity, respect, and deep listening. Through honesty, we listened to one another’s concerns, working to grow from one another’s comments. We are confident that this effort was a valuable step in expanding our relationships with each other and our communities.

We affirm the necessity, as we go forward, that we all reach for an honorable discourse that equally values and underscores the humanity of all people. This must be the order of the day. Hate speech is the antithesis of honorable discourse and must be avoided and rejected. This includes anti-Semitism and racism, but also sexism, homophobia, and other kinds of discrimination. Our civic leaders have a duty to themselves and to the community they serve to model such honorable discourse and to uphold it when calling on our citizenry to responsible engagement.

We have joined to commit ourselves to work together to combat all forms of hatred in our community. We will advocate for educational and social programs that create bridges and not walls between people. We will advocate for the weak, the poor and the marginalized in this town. Social advantage must not be allowed to become an instrument for inequality or a source of festering resentment. It must be distributed and available to all.

To that end we will fight to move the leadership in Montclair to develop a plan for our community that preserves the values of diversity and openness that have made Montclair special. This means that the issues of affordable housing, effective education, and adequate services, among other issues, will become a priority in planning and not a secondary, grudging consideration.

We invite all people of good will to join in this struggle. We must learn from experience and understand that we cannot afford to lose this opportunity to save Montclair.

Signed:

Mr. Kevin Dawud Amin, Imam, Masjid Al-Wadud

Rev. Clenard Childress, Jr., New Calvary Baptist Church

Cantor Kenneth Feibush, Temple Sholom of West Essex

Cantor Meredith Greenberg, Temple Ner Tamid

Rabbi David Greenstein, Congregation Shomrei Emunah

Rabbi Laurence Groffman, Temple Sholom of West Essex

Rev. Leslie Houseworth-Fields, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church

Rabbi Marc Katz, Temple Ner Tamid

Mr. Albert Pelham, Montclair NAACP

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, Bnai Keshet

Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, Bnai Keshet

Rev. Anita Wright, Trinity Presbyterian Church

Harris later issued a statement of apology for his remarks.

“I understand that I need to work toward understanding the Jewish experience so I may continue to devote myself to civil rights and the promotion of justice and equity for all people,” Harris said in an updated version of his statement, which was sent to the clergy meeting members on Friday after the letter’s release.

Harris reiterated that he had been speaking from his role with the New Jersey Association of Black Educators and not from his role with the Montclair NAACP, for which he had been the education committee chair. He said that his remarks were not indicative of the views of either organization.