June 11, 2024

Building a Coalition of Faiths and Ethnicities

Assemblyman Rev. Reginald Atkins starts every conversation with “grace and peace”. His signature greeting embodies the same principles that guide his work as a pastor and state legislator: He leads with empathy and promotes unity. And after he attended the January 2024 Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest Legislators and Educators Mission to Israel, he was eager to help build bridges between the African American community and the Jewish one. 

The newest member of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) team, Rev. Atkins now works with Federation as a consultant. He spoke to his new colleague, JCRC Associate Director Stephanie Abrahams, in his state assembly office in Roselle about finding common bonds, breaking bread with diverse leaders, and speed-dialing a rabbi.  

Rev. Atkins (RA): Grace and peace, Stephanie. 

Stephanie Abrahams (SA): Good morning, Rev. Atkins. It has been a pleasure to collaborate with you in the community building space now that you are a consultant for the JCRC. You were clearly moved by your trip to Israel. Why did you want to go?  

RA: People have always been a passion of mine. When I see people going through something, I want to go through it with them. All the events that happened last year on October 7 made me want to understand the Jewish community because I have always had love for the Jewish community. When the opportunity presented itself, I thanked God.  

SA: What was your experience like in Israel? 

RA: It was fast! I think we were on the ground for about 40 hours total. Being able to see what happened firsthand was so impactful on so many levels. There was a moment when we went to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which used to have hundreds of people. When we visited, there were only two people left because everyone else had been evacuated and feared returning. As I walked the streets, I saw firsthand the devastation of the bombs, the devastation of people being impacted in such an ungodly manner. That left a big impression on me because my people have experienced devastation, too. I saw doll babies in the middle of the street, and I thought about my daughter…  

SA: What happened when you came home to New Jersey? 

RA: I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to tell the story. My mission became to change the perspective in my community because we are led to believe that the Jewish community has always being on top, but that is far from the truth. The perspective I want to promote is that we are all created equal, that we all want the same things in life for ourselves and the next generation. We all want to feel safe. We all want to feel loved. The Jewish community is good people. You have good hearts. You want the same things we want. You want to do right by people.  

SA: How do we start to do this work?  

RA: We can start to build bridges between Jews and African Americans by diminishing the perceptions that have been built over so many years by evil people and people who are filled with hate. I think we have to start with the young people.  

SA: The JCRC recently started an Interfaith Teen Leader group that will begin its second cohort in the fall. The group will meet many times throughout the year and then travel together to Washington, D.C. to visit the Holocaust Museum and the African American History Museum, among other places.  

RA: Yes, it is so exciting. It is powerful to put young ones together. We need to put all different types of students together to play together in the metaphorical sandbox. And that group is going to initiate and create a surge of people working together, loving one another, fighting together, pushing together.  

SA: The JCRC also has an Anti-Racism Task Force which is comprised of both Jews and African Americans working together on community building, service, and common social justice goals. 

RA: The goal of all of this is to change these perceptions by getting people to pull down their barriers and to come out of their silos. The Anti-Racism Task Force is a good example of this. We, African Americans and Jews, have already been meeting and we are going to dine together this summer. That is powerful.  

SA: What would be the perfect cross-cultural meal?  

RA: (laughing) Oxtails and rice for sure.  

SA: I look forward to it! We are also working together on programming for Juneteenth Shabbats with our Interfaith Leaders. 

RA: We have to find commonality, and we know the importance of understanding our freedoms, fighting racism and antisemitism together. I was the first mayor that wrote legislation that enabled Juneteenth to be a holiday before the state of New Jersey did. Everyone inside the Roselle government has off and is paid. Now I am excited to work with you on Juneteenth Shabbat. Members of Metropolitan Baptist from Newark will be going to Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston on June 21. They are serving both latkes and fried chicken for dinner. And my wife and I, as well as members of New Life Church from Union, will be going to Beth El in South Orange for another Juneteenth Shabbat on June 28. We are going to do both Jewish prayers and African American spirituals together. 

SA: How does your work as a state assemblyman inform what you do at Federation? 

RA: Everything I do is intentional. Every bill I support also has a theme of the work I do with Federation, which is equality. For example, I am a sponsor of the New Jersey Student Support Act [which establishes a program in New Jersey Department of Treasury to provide tax credits to taxpayers contributing to organizations which award scholarships to nonpublic school students]. It doesn’t matter if it is a public or a private school, we just have to educate the children. That’s why I am championing the bill. I think I bring to Federation the same things my colleagues in the legislature as well as my constituents recognize me for – strong advocacy on key issues, a collaborative approach to problem-solving, and my unwavering dedication to equity.  

SA: So, what does success look like to you? 

RA: Bringing people together, building a coalition of people of different faiths and ethnicities who are working together. I mean whoever thought that we would be at a synagogue interacting like we are doing for Juneteenth. That is success to me! That’s powerful. Just the mere thought that I can pick up the phone and call a rabbi! But that doesn’t mean the work we do is going to be easy. We can only change perception over time. We are doing this intentionally, making sure everything we do works toward this goal, and we are doing it consistently. 

SA: What will your working motto be going forward?  

RA: Meeting the needs of the people. Always.