A lifetime of keeping the faith

October 28, 1995|By Marilyn McCraven

Growing up as a Jewish child in Lower Park Heights in the post-Depression years, Beverly K. Fine learned to get along with everyone. She played in the backyard sandbox with black neighborhood children. Her two best childhood girlfriends were Italian and African-American, respectively.

She attended the College of Notre Dame to learn more about Roman Catholicism and other religions. Her husband, Jerome, now a real-estate broker, was a long-time owner of a West Baltimore TV-repair business where he had an excellent relationship with his many black customers and still manages to keep in touch with some of them.

The Fines are charter members of a local coalition of blacks and Jews known as BLEWS. Prior personal experience and membership in the BLEWS showed them that black-Jewish relations needed to be fostered before adulthood. So the couple started a fund to pay for a course that would bring black and Jewish high school students together called, ''Keeping the Faith: The Heritage and Culture of African Americans and American Jews,'' which is now in its fifth year. Some 90 students have completed the academically rigorous, semester-long course that draws a roughly equal number of top students from Baltimore's Northwestern High School and Beth Tfiloh Community School, a private Jewish day school in Pikesville.

A fund the Fines established pays for all course-related expenses, including chartered buses that transport the students to Baltimore Hebrew University one day a week for the two-hour class and for field trips to cultural institutions.

No one knows how many such programs ''Keeping the Faith'' has inspired around the country, but Baltimore Hebrew University regularly fields inquiries about it and sends out copies of the course curriculum, said Judy Meltzer, undergraduate dean.

Knowing their history of social consciousness, the Fines seemed a good starting point locally for answers to a way out of this dark passage of black-Jewish relations. The ascent of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in the wake of the Oct. 16 Million Man March portends irreparable damage for this decades-old alliance.

Cultural education

Beverly Fine understands but does not condone Jewish leaders' vehement criticism of Mr. Farrakhan. ''Jews are too sensitive,'' she says under her breath. On the other hand, as one who lost many family members to the Holocaust, she deplores Minister Farrakhan's statement that ''Hitler was a great man.''

She discusses Louis Farrakhan in calm, measured tones. This writer and community activist advises one to study history to appreciate that Mr. Farrakhan's statements are not new and that it's also not his invention to use Jews as scapegoats. Repeated denunciations of him, she says, are likely to boost his prominence and increase the black-Jewish rift; while work to bring the groups together might deflect them.

One gets the feeling from talking to Mrs. Fine that if she could persuade Mr. Farrakhan to come to her Mount Washington home for a good meal and conversation, he wouldn't be quite so eager to use harsh epithets on Jews.

''We maintain the attitude that we need to educate -- go back and study our cultural history together. . . . After all, we have all been slaves at some point. . . . Then we can go forward together,'' she said.

She would love for Minister Farrakhan or some of his followers to hold talks with the BLEWS. However, she thinks that's unlikely because many of her fellow BLEWS members are reluctant to even be in the same room with Louis Farrakhan.

So, she returns to her favorite subject: the ''Keeping the Faith'' classes. Next fall, the Fines will sponsor such a course for adults, which will be taught by a black male professor and a Jewish female professor in Rockville.

Reflecting on Minister Farrakhan for a moment, Mrs. Fine admitted that name-calling isn't just a one-way street. She was called a ''nigger lover'' by a female Jewish acquaintance for funding the high school program.

Undaunted, Mrs. Fine responded: 'What I am is a people lover.''

Marilyn McCraven writes editorials for The Sun.

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