Side by side, they prayed for a new order and got in the groove to agospel hymn. Some burst into cheers. A few wiped away tears.
In an emotional ceremony, more than 400 blacks and Jews gathered at an Annapolis synagogue Sunday night to celebrate the liberation of Ethiopian Jews.
The event marked the birth of a new alliance between the county'sblack and Jewish communities, the African American-Jewish Coalition of Anne Arundel County.
Ministers and rabbis called for renewing ties to fight prejudice and persecution. Old men in yarmulkes swayed to the beat of gospel songs. Dignitaries passed out proclamations. Even Vice President Dan Quayle sent a glowing tribute to the meeting, held in the Kneseth Israel synagogue.
"This is the place for common understanding," said Mamuye Zere, who escaped from the civil war in Ethiopia on the last rescue plane in May. "Being together and discussing the issues, you can create a brotherhood and sisterhood."
Speaking in halting English, the 28-year-old Ethiopian native described how he had left his family and fled to Israel in 1980, but returned this spring to help transport thousands of his countrymen to safety.
After he fled in 1980, Zere said, he had dreamed of being reunited with his 10 brothers and sisters. But he barely recognized them when they escaped in 1984. His relatives, after months of confinement in overcrowded refugee camps, were like skeletons when they arrived in Israel, he said.
"In Ethiopia, we were called Flashas, or strangers," he said. "We always wanted to come and build our home and not be called strangers."
Coalition leaders chose Operation Solomon, the May airlift of black Jews to Israel, as a symbol of uniting in a common cause. More than 14,500 Jews, trapped when rebels surrounded the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, were rescued during one weekend.
Rabbi Seth Gordon, of the Kneseth Israel congregation, said the freeing of the Ethiopian Jews demonstrates that "Zionism is not racism." He prayed that the black and Jewish communities of the county will find a "common ground and common language, so that together we may build a better world."
Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who co-founded the coalition with Gordon, urged the crowd to unite in overcoming racism and bigotry. The group's success, he emphasized, will be best measured by continuing progress toward social justice.
"In a real sense, tonight we have come to issue a challenge," he said. "Tonight, we come to celebrate a coalition that has come to address racism and bigotry, not racism and bigotry 2,000 miles away . . . but at home."
Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Snowden pointed out that blacks and Jews formed a bond during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He called on the crowd to put aside misunderstandings and tensions that have separated the two communities since then.
"There's no timefor apathy or complacency now in this county," he said.
U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen, D-4th, and other officials praised the new coalition as a "landmark occasion."
David Peleg, a minister from the Israeli Embassy, said the May airlift of the Ethiopian Jews was a fitting symbol because it demonstrated to the world that Jews are battling prejudice and racism.
The Israelis had prepared everything, downto the last article of clothing, when the jets arrived carrying the Ethiopian Jews on May 18 and 19, Peleg said. Only one thing was missing; the organizers had forgotten diapers for the babies.
"It was Friday night and all the stores were closed," he said. "So, they beganknocking on doors in Jerusalem. Pretty soon, there were miles of cars coming with hundreds of thousands of diapers."
He paused and added: "I think that is what Israel is all about."
Snowden, Gordon and other event organizers said the coalition will continue to discuss concerns of both the Jewish and black communities, they said.
"Ourrelations should never be judged whether they are perfect or terrible," Gordon said. "They should be judged on whether they are improvingor deteriorating."