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The Island Now: “Temple, Ministry Build Interfaith Ties”

Temple Beth El will host newly elected U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) for a Martin Luther King day service on Jan. 18, marking the latest chapter in the 26-year-old dialogue between the Jewish and black communities at Beth El and Mt. Olive Baptist Church.

Jeffries, a state Assemblyman who will succeed 30-year incumbent Edolphus Towns to represent New York’s 8th District in the House, has worked on education, housing and civil rights issued during his tenure in Albany.

Jeffries also sponsored legislation that limited the use of data from the New York Police

Department’s stop-and-frisk program – the department’s policy of personal searches that critics allege disproportionately targets black and Latino residents.

His appearance is the product of a relationship between Beth El and Mt. Olive that stretches back to 1987, when members of both congregations began a black-Jewish dialogue.

“I think it’s something to be real proud of, especially that it’s endured for 25 years,” said Roslyn Weiner, one of the dialogue’s founding members and an organizer of the upcoming Martin Luther King Day service. “If people across the county could replicate this it would be fabulous, even a little bit.”

Inez Dobie, a Mt. Olive congregant and a member of the dialogue since the late 1980s, said the dialogue had created strong ties between the church and the temple.

“When I first started, it was just like getting to know each other,” Dobie said. “[Now] we know more about them and how they work, and they know more about us, and they know about our lifestyle.”

“They have brought our communities, especially our church, closer together,” Dobie continued.

“Temple Beth El has really been helpful to our community.”

Over the years, members of both congregations have met regularly, holding open discussions on topics fraught with controversy – the views of firebrand minister Louis Farrakhan, the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, and the standing of gay people in Judaism among others. Weiner said the openness needed for these conversations was a product of a growing closeness and friendship.

“They began to trust each other,” Weiner said. “It started as a more formal thing, and with each passing year people became more comfortable.”

That trust grew out of tentative beginnings, according to Weiner. The dialogue began following a 1987 memorial service for King attended by members of both congregations, when Mt. Olive member.