Mark Meyer Appel was greeted as an old friend as he stepped on stage to receive the Unity Award at the Marine Park Jewish Community Center Legislative Breakfast early in June.
“The JCC has partnered with Mark Appel, and the Bridge Multicultural Center to bring programming to the youth in the community,” said Shea Rubenstein, executive vice president of the JCC of Marine Park. “Mark has been a great asset to the Brooklyn community, bridging different sectors of the community together and bringing all our elected officials together in areas that unite us.”
Appel is the founder of The Bridge Multicultural Advocacy Project (Bridge MCP) in Brooklyn. For the past 11 years and counting, Bridge MCP has played a pivotal role in shaping state and federal policies, particularly in legislative initiatives that affect families and at-risk children, and the expansion of local programs to address health epidemics such as obesity, diabetes and asthma. Last May, on the Bridge MCP’s 10th anniversary, Appel was honored for his years of service by Mayor Eric Adams on the steps of New York’s City Hall.
In 2023, New York City’s 8.5 million residents included over three million first-generation immigrants, the largest number of any year in its history. Well over 200,000 were children, and they represent over 800 languages and more than 150 countries. The Bridge MCP philosophy sounds simple: to bring together the diversity that is New York City in a space that allows for community, advocacy and education toward common goals as a unified front, achieving goals that benefit everyone by working together. It’s not simple, however, as political, historical and spiritual obstacles must be approached with mutual respect and empathy. Many, while willing, may find this hard, if not impossible, to do.
“Everybody asked the same question, ‘What exactly do you think you’re going to accomplish?” Appel recalled during Bridge MCP’s early days. “I myself had doubts at first as to how to convince Blacks, Jews and Muslims to come together in the same room. But we went door to door to every synagogue, church and mosque and had this conversation, and those conversations began to produce results.”
While touring Bridge MCP’s Brooklyn office on Flatbush Avenue, we came across a historical wonder: an 1860s map of New York City, which at the time had less than a million people. Neighborhood schools were marked indicating which schools were for “colored children.” It was a visual reminder of how far our nation had come and what and can be achieved when people of different backgrounds, beliefs and skin colors put aside their differences and focus on the common good.
“I knew that as New York’s population was changing, a new strategy needed to be realized for meeting everyone’s common needs,” Appel said. “In hindsight, we weren’t responding to any current crisis, we were responding to the needs of the future.”
Appel believes that Brooklyn has always been a model of communities working together despite challenging times in its history, like the deadly Crown Heights riots in August of 1991, or 2019, when constant violent street attacks stole the headlines. Today the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Williamsburg (which includes northwest Bedford-Stuyvesant) have Jews, Blacks and Latinos living peacefully side by side. Nishma Research, which surveys Jewish lifestyles, attitudes and experiences published a study in 2022 that suggested these two neighborhoods, while experiencing the highest number of violent encounters between Jews and people of color, had the least concern about antisemitism, and generally positive feelings about their non-Jewish neighbors. Alternatively, neighborhoods with more liberal views and less violent encounters, but less exposure or proximity to neighborhoods with people of color, were more concerned for their safety and more likely to believe the non-Jews were antisemitic.
Appel confirmed Nishma’s findings by reflecting on his own life experience growing up in Crown Heights. “My father was chassidic,” Appel said. “If a guy came to my house to put a light bulb in my apartment my mother wouldn’t let him go home without lunch and lunch for his family. The chassidic people always employed Blacks and always had good relations with Blacks, which can sound ironic, when looking at some of the events you hear about in the news.”
Appel said it’s not about being politically correct or saying the right things, but about building relationships. “I am very much against rhetoric, I speak to people all the time and rhetoric is not going to change anything, Twitter is not going to change anything. It is so satisfying seeing sometimes hundreds of people gathered at events – Blacks, Haitians, the Orthodox, to see former NYC public advocate Jumaane Williams dancing to Jewish music. We are not connected by blogs, Twitter or Facebook – just real people, in a place with no agenda other than unity.”
Bridge MCP boasts a community training and resource center that is regularly used for local support groups. Currently, at least 22 organizations use the center, which also provides education and computer programs, tutoring, summer programs and movie screenings.
One of the initiatives that Bridge MCP is currently working on is an education series for public schools to combat antisemitism. Appel believes that for this initiative to be successful, parents must be brought into the process. “Bigotry starts at home,” Appel said. “If you teach kids that you have to get along with Blacks, Italians and Chinese, you have to make sure their parents are on board with the program. Otherwise, they go home to a father that makes jokes about the Chinese… so sometimes the kids have to bring their parents with them. By the end of the course, the kid gets a certificate that says they ‘promise not to participate in hate speech and I completed this course.’”
Our tour concluded with the Bridge MCP conference room. Dotted throughout the room were flags of origin from various communities – Israeli, Jamaican and Russian to name a few. “Whenever we have a joint event, we bring down their flags to make people comfortable,” Appel said.
When looking at race relations through a Jewish lens, it’s hard not to give thought to one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history, the Holocaust. Amazingly, Appel is able to find light and inspiration in those memories as well.
“My father was not in a concentration camp, but my mother was in Auschwitz for two years before the Americans came in and freed everyone,” Appel shared. “By the time the American soldiers came, my mother and sister were both down to about 65 pounds.
“And when they came, she saw that the American soldiers were white, Black, Asian, Spanish…so my passion for diversity and unity comes from my parents and my mother who used to say, ‘How can anyone be a bigot when we had an Air Force division of people of color fighting and losing their lives?’”
At the end of the day, it’s about finding that common place. “We all have much more in common that we need to resolve than the little that divides us. We all want safe streets. We all want safe communities. We all want to live in a peaceful country. This is what we need to focus on.”
To learn more about Bridge MCP, call 718-338-5200 or [email protected].