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From The Birmingham Jewish Federation



It was a fascinating discussion: Questions about Israel, grassroots democracy, Jewish power, our
Montclair Road Jewish community campus, relations between Jews and Moslems and other topics
were being asked by representatives of five foreign countries who had come to our Levite Jewish
Community Center to learn more about the Birmingham Jewish community.

Visiting Birmingham as part of a multi-city tour last week were government officials from
Cameroon, Indonesia, Philippines, Tanzania and Uganda. The group came through a program
developed by the Huntsville-based International Services Council in partnership with the US State
Department. The purpose was to allow the international visitors to explore how American
democracy continues to answer the needs of citizens who increasingly have diverse racial, ethnic
and cultural backgrounds. Visitors had the chance to see how citizens on the grassroots level can
affect real change and how people are involved with their respective communities.

The meetings with representatives of the Birmingham Jewish community were arranged by the
BJF’s Jewish Community Relations Committee. At the conclusion, the visitors gathered in the
LJCC board room to ask questions.


Shofwan Bin Abdul Karim, of heavily-Moslem Indonesia, who is Chairman of the West Sumatra
Provincial Office of Muhammadiyah, asked if the relationship here between the Jewish and
Moslem communities is good. The relationship between the two communities is not bad per se,
nor is it good, he was told. It’s essentially non existent. Discussion followed about how both
Birminghamians and Americans perceive Moslems. The group had been told by representatives of
the Islamic community they met during their US travels that Islam’s image in the US, in the wake
of 9/11, is not good.

How can the LJCC fulfill its mission of being a Jewish institution and still be open to people of
other faiths? That was asked by Abdulatiif Ssebaggala, a Member of Uganda’s Parliament. It was
explained that America has a tradition of medical and social service institutions, even those
affiliated with a particular faith, being open to people of all religions. Two local hospitals – St.
Vincent’s and Baptist Montclair – were mentioned as examples.

The representative from Cameroon, Theophile Nzeki, Senior Civil Administrator, Secretary
General of the East Province, said he had recently seen a national Jewish gathering on television
at which former President Clinton and other leaders spoke and he remarked about how powerful
the American Jewish community seemed to be. Jews are influential because America has been a
great country for Jews; America provides religious freedom, a free enterprise system in which
ingenuity and hard work are highly valued and opportunities for people to get an education --
three things which have benefited Jews enormously, he was told.

He also asked if national Jewish institutions fund local Jewish communities, such as
Birmingham’s. No, it is actually the opposite; that much of the money that funds these national
and international Jewish organizations is raised locally, often through Jewish Federations.

The Ugandan representative asked how Jews have contributed to the Middle East peace process
and if that contribution has been, in his words, negative or positive. Very positively, was the
answer. A commitment to Israel and belief that it is in America’s interests to have a strong,
democratic Israel in the Middle East has motivated Jews to advocate for Israel, which has resulted
in even stronger support for Israel from the US government. This American support has made
Israel feel more secure and comfortable with taking risks for peace.

The group had an awareness of how small the American Jewish community is (about 2 percent of
the overall population) and how small the Birmingham Jewish community is in particular (about
one half of one percent of the overall metro population). The Cameroon representative wanted to
know if there were Jews involved here in local government and also at the national level. These
positions are not closed to Jews, he was told, and Birmingham in fact at one point had a Jewish
congressman (Ben Erdreich.) There are also are a significant number of Jews serving in both the
US House and Senate.

The Cameroon delegate also said there is a perception in his country that a candidate cannot be
elected President in the US without Jewish support. Others said there was a similar perception in
their countries. Jews are influential politically in disproportion to their numbers, it was
explained. This is due mainly to Jews being educated, informed and willing to participate as Jews
in the American political process. They were surprised however, to learn that President Bush got
only 25 percent of the Jewish vote and John Kerry received about 75 percent. “That’s what we
came for – the facts,” the Cameroon representative said, as he scribbled down notes to take home.

The Ugandan wanted to know what role Jews played during the civil rights era in Birmingham.
Jews essentially fell into two groups – those who actively and visibly tried to help the black
community and those who took no role. At the same time, it was pointed out, the general white
population fell into three groups – those who helped, those who took no role and those who
actively worked against the black community and participated in or encouraged the violence.
Jews were not part of that third group.

The Tanzanian, Halifa Hassan Hida, District Executive Director, Mufindi District Council, wanted
to know if our Jewish community campus gets contributions from the government in view of the
services we are providing. A little bit, though the bulk of our support comes mainly from private
donations was the answer. With that said, this process is helped by the government because such
donations are tax deductible, a concept the foreign delegation found intriguing.

As they left the briefing, several of the visitors stopped and said how much they appreciated their
visit to our community and two said “Shalom.”


Their visit to our Jewish community included meetings with Sherrie Grunfeld, Senior Services
Coordinator, who introduced them to the Levite Jewish Community Center Senior Center. That
was followed with lunch with senior citizens who are participants in this program and recipients
of LJCC senior services.
A meeting was then held with BJF Director of Programs Joyce Spielberger to discuss the role of
the BJF and the makeup of the Jewish community campus overall, which, they learned, includes
the NE Miles Jewish Day School, Collat Jewish Family Services, Birmingham Jewish
Foundation, Jewish Community Relations Committee and other programs. They then had a tour
with Ruth Nomberg, Membership Services Director of the Levite Jewish Community Center. A
summary meeting offering the opportunity for questions was held with BJF Executive Director
Richard Friedman. BJF staff assistant Lauren Pyle also participated.

We thank Margaret Anne Goldsmith, of Huntsville, for suggesting this international delegation
visit our Jewish community and Luba Cehelska, Executive Director, of the International Services
Council in Huntsville, for making this visit possible. Everyday in so many ways the BJF strives to
build greater understanding and greater sensitivity among others to the issues important to us as a
Jewish community.