Rebuilding Neighborhoods, Building Bridges: African-American and Jewish congregations tackle community projects together

by Carol F. Steinbach

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning at Emory United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Inside the church, worshipers at this predominantly African-American congregation are completing their weekly service. Outside on Emory’s grounds, 80 Jewish volunteers from Adas Israel and Tifereth Israel synagogues and the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Behrend Builders program are busily renovating two small church buildings. When completed, the buildings will house homeless families and community programs.

After the service, Emory congregants put out a homemade lunch for the volunteers and churchgoers to share. It’s a vegetarian buffet, in deference to those who keep kosher. Emory worshipers then join the Jewish workers for a messy afternoon of painting, drywall installation, roof repair, and yard work.

The partnership between the synagogues and Emory is sponsored by Yachad: The Jewish Community Housing Development Corporation of Washington, D.C. Community development corporations (CDCs) are locally based cooperative ventures that seek to revitalize communities using private and public financing. Founded in 1990, Yachad is one of a growing number of organizations in the CDC field that go by the name of "intermediary," whose function is to help, on a consulting basis, other CDCs. It runs its programs on an annual budget of about $100,000, raised from local synagogues, foundations, and individual donors. Yachad means "together" in Hebrew.

Over the years, Yachad has worked with most of the major CDCs in Washington. Since 1997, it has targeted its assistance to new and emerging CDCs started by churches. "The large CDCs don’t really need much from us anymore so we decided to help the fledgling church-based developers gain the organizational strength and technical expertise they need to start projects," explains Mark Weinheimer, Yachad’s vice president. "We have found this niche especially rewarding and well suited to our mission."

But Yachad is about more than bricks and mortar. A vital component of its work is to repair the alliance between African-Americans and Jews—a relationship which was strong during the social and political turmoil of the 1960s but has frayed since then. For this reason, dialogue—in the form of hands-on involvement between volunteers and congregation members—is essential to Yachad’s mission.

"We’re not trying to bring back the golden age of the Civil Rights movement, but rather to create a new legacy rooted in common experience," explains Audrey Lyon, Yachad’s executive director. "Interfaith dialogues can only go so far. Yachad focuses on giving blacks and Jews a concrete way to translate good intentions into deeds that will last long after."

Communicating Faith-to-Faith

Yachad is also helping Emory’s new CDC, Beacon of Light, to create bylaws and a strategic plan for redeveloping its neighborhood. The plan identifies three nearby properties that the church hopes eventually to acquire and redevelop. Yachad’s $1,500 grant to Emory enabled the church to prepare an application and pro forma financial data for potential acquisition of two properties owned by the city. While Emory did not win that award, its proposal won high praise form city officials and has paved the way for future development considerations.

"We’ve had an extremely positive relationship with Yachad," says Rev. Joseph W. Daniels Jr., pastor of Emory. "They have been there for us in the arena of community and economic development when many others have not been willing to extend their arms."

The Emory project is part of Yachad’s Faith-to-Faith Community Development Partnership program with African-American churches. Established in 1997, Faith-to- Faith has forged partnerships with four churches that are now actively engaged in community development activities [see box]. "Faith-to-Faith partnerships are especially important because we can work together within a shared religious context," says Weinheimer. "As anchors in the black community, churches provide significant leadership and resources that can become a linchpin for neighborhood renewal."

Yachad offers its church partners a wide range of pro bono legal services; strategic planning, organizational building, and real estate development expertise; and architectural and construction consultation. The congregations are generally eager and very able to revitalize their neighborhoods but have not had experience in community development. "The churches know what their communities need," says Lyon. "Yachad may not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to commit to a project, but our relatively small infusions, delivered at the right strategic point, can make a substantial difference." Unlike most community development consultants, Yachad does not charge any fee for its services.

The Faith-to-Faith process typically begins with Yachad and a potential church partner opening discussions about renovating a neighborhood. In most cases, the church forms a nonprofit development corporation to serve as a focal point for its revitalization activities. Yachad and the church partner then work jointly to design a strategic plan for the new CDC. The plan disciplines the development process by creating a priority list of projects. Yachad helps the new CDCs apply for government or foundation funds and, if requested, contributes modest funds of its own to support CDC operations. Yachad also helps with preliminary investigative work required for real estate development, including securing property titles, conducting architectural and environmental reviews, preparing project proposals, and selecting a developer.

Beyond Dialogue

A second Yachad initiative, Sukkot-in-April, enlists synagogues to repair the homes of low-income elderly and disabled people in the community. Each year of the last Sunday in April, hundreds of Jewish volunteers work from dawn until dusk painting and patching walls; fixing broken windows; clearing yards, renovating leaking roofs and rotten floors; replacing bathrooms, kitchens, and faulty electrical systems; and adding handrails to make homes handicapped accessible. Skilled carpenters, plumbers, roofers, electricians, and other professionals assist on homes needed extensive rehabilitation.

Sukkot-in-April is carried out in partnership with the national Christmas-in-April volunteer repair initiative. It is name for the Jewish harvest festival commemorating the ancient time when Jews built temporary shelters in the desert after fleeing Egypt. In addition to homes, Sukkot-in-April volunteers have also worked on schools and community facilities.

Rosalie Johnson’s house was repaired as part of Sukkot-in-April four years ago. "I feel honored and blessed," said the 66-year-old homeowner. "I’m raising five children and nine grandchildren, and I didn’t have any money to do what I needed for the house. Now the repairs are all done."

Since 1992, more than 1,000 Jewish volunteers have repaired over 80 homes. Sukkot-in- April has become one of the largest Jewish-sponsored home repair efforts in the nation. In 1999, 20 synagogues and Jewish organizations have participated, and Yachad is laying the groundwork to expand the program beyond Washington to other cities with Christmas-in-April chapters.

A third Yachad activity, the Housing Investment Fund, supplies loans to other local CDCs and to Yachad’s Faith-to-Faith partners to help finance their projects. The groups pay from 0 to 3 percent interest. The fund is capitalized by Jewish investors who agree to accept below-market returns and keep their dollars in the fund for at least three years. Since 1994, Yachad’s Housing Investment Fund has helped to finance 115 affordable homes and apartments in Washington.

Engaging the Jewish Community

Yachad is unusual among Jewish organizations because it works almost exclusively on projects that don’t directly benefit Jews. Many participants in Yachad’s programs express satisfaction in addressing an important community need, and many find they identify with the strengths they see in the African-American community, especially the willingness to help others in need and to work cooperatively to address community problems. "This is how we, as Jews, can express our religious fervor and also establish something meaningful in the community," explains Terry Edelstein, who helped to coordinate the Adas Israel volunteers working at Emory. "For us, this is social action."

By helping churches embrace community development, Yachad is also working to spread a proven revitalization strategy. Despite the booming economy nationwide, shortages of affordable housing remain and pockets of poverty persist, especially in cities that are doing well. A 1998 report from HUD, Rental Housing Assistance: The Crisis Continues, found that more than 5 million very low-income households—the highest figure ever recorded by the Department—pay over half of their earnings for shelter or live in substandard housing. These figures show that in the Washington area alone, 68,000 families spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent and 26,430 D.C. families are on waiting lists for public housing or Section 8 assistance.

The community development approach, which combines involvement with bricks and mortar, is making progress in addressing problems that conventional initiatives could not fix. The CDC strategy works well, but too few neighborhoods are being served by these organizations.

Yachad hopes to remedy that problem by assisting in the birth of new CDCs that can rebuild neighborhoods all across Washington—and to build some bridges along the way.

Carol Steinbach is a journalist and book author specializing in community development and housing. She is president of Yachad and a board member of the Development Training Institute.

September/October 1999
Copyright © 1999 by The Alban Institute