From Ferguson to France, the headlines scream how vulnerable the African-American and Jewish communities still are to racism and anti-Semitism.
This summer, 24 young African-American and Jewish leaders from the Washington area participated in a journey from New York to the Deep South to learn firsthand the history of their shared struggle for civil rights that continues to this day.
The high school juniors visited eight states in July as part of Operating Understanding DC, an organization formed 20 years ago with a mission to “build a generation of African-American and Jewish community leaders who promote respect, understanding and cooperation while working to eradicate racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination.”
The group heard from former and modern-day civil rights activists, including Freedom Riders who rode buses in 1961 to integrate interstate travel.
They learned about the chasidic community of Borough Park in New York; took part in a voting rights rally in Winston-Salem, N.C.; reflected at the site in Anniston, Ala., where a Freedom Riders’ bus was firebombed; crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala,. 50 years after civil rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery; and in Memphis, Tenn., stood on the spot at the Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
“We hear all about the civil rights movement and we hear all about the struggles that African-Americans had to face, but going to all the sights has made it much more real,” said Max Finkelpearl, 17, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School. “You get a sense that wow, this is America, the country we love so much, but there were a lot of people who for a very long time did not have the same rights and treatment under the law and under society and in some cases that is still going on.”
Lauren Bellamy, 17, a student at the School Without Walls Senior High School in Washington, said hearing the speakers had a big impact on her.
“Our speakers were telling us that we are now the leaders, that we have to take control of our future and the future generations to come,” said Bellamy. “Somebody we met with who was a Freedom Rider, his name is Charles Jones, he said that ‘my light isn’t out yet but I’m lighting your torch,’ and it was really powerful to hear that because now it is my responsibility as a young person to go out into the world and make a difference, especially when it comes to social injustice.”
Finkelpearl and Bellamy spoke from their last stop in Nashville before returning to Washington.
The summer journey is one part of a year-long program that started in January with six months of cultural education and immersion. The third part of the program involves public speaking and leadership training to prepare the students to give speeches at synagogues, churches and other institutions.
Operation Understanding DC Executive Director Aaron Jenkins said that the organization has collaborated with Jews United for Justice and American Jewish Committee and that “the black-Jewish relationship is strong.” He mentioned another example of the two communities working together — more than 150 Reform rabbis are carrying a Torah through the southern United States, joining the NAACP on a 46-day, 860-mile civil rights march that began last Saturday in Selma and is planned to end Sept. 16 in Washington.
From student to leader
Aaron Jenkins knows a thing or two about why Operation Understanding DC is going strong 20 years on. That’s because 18 years ago he was a student in the program.
The third-generation Washingtonian said participating in an interfaith program had a profound impact on him.
“I would never have met the young people I met had it not been for this program or been exposed to the things I was exposed to,” Jenkins said of the group.
After his graduation from Williams College, Jenkins volunteered with Operation Understanding DC when, as luck had it, there was an opening to become program director. He applied for the position and got the job, rising to executive director.
Since 1995, more than 500 Washington area Jewish and African-American community leaders have participated in the year-long program that was started by Karen Kalish after she saw the success of a similar program in Philadelphia.
The 21st cohort recently returned from a trip through the Deep South following in the footsteps of the Freedom Riders and other leaders of the civil rights movement.
Jenkins attributes the program’s success to three founding principles: working exclusively with Jewish and African-American youth; fundraising so there would be no barriers to participation; and ensuring the program consistently provides cultural education to young people.
Said Jenkins: “We have 20 years of young people who have had a very similar experience where they have had the cultural education, where they’ve learned about history, where they’ve lived history on the summer journey, where they received this training and where they make history.”
Alumni continue to facilitate dialogue with the community about current issues such as the Freddie Gray incident and relations between the police and African-Americans, according to Jenkins.
“When we ask young people to be a part of our program, we don’t tell them the type of activist to be,” said Jenkins. “We encourage them to go out and do something. To go out and get involved. How can you get involved? How can you address the issues that are coming up? That happens in a variety of ways. It happens through education.”