Black and Jewish Teens Tackle Biases, History in Year-Long Program

By Ashlee Clark
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Teenagers yelled each other's names and embraced as they entered a Silver Spring backyard party Aug. 20. Once settled, they discussed a recent Beyonce concert, raved about the coleslaw and worried about the beginning of school.

And then they shared stories about civil rights, stereotyping and discrimination.

All the students were Jewish or black, and they gathered on a late Sunday afternoon as part of their year-long participation in Operation Understanding DC, a program that promotes better relationships and understanding between the two groups.

For the summer portion of the program, the teens went on a civil-rights tour of the South and the East Coast. The students' next steps will be community outreach to encourage tolerance.

"I'll be able to accept people easier without stereotypes blocking our ability to get to know each other," said Chalia Acree, 17, a senior at St. John's College High School in the District.

Operation Understanding began in 1995 to unite black and Jewish students, promote leadership and fight racism, said Rachael Feldman, the program's executive director. It is open to black and Jewish high school juniors in the District, Virginia and Maryland.

"We really feel like our two groups historically have been discriminated against heavily in the U.S. and throughout the world," Feldman said.

The program begins in January with a curriculum focused on the religious histories and cultures of each group.

The summer civil-rights trip "is an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of all the history they've been learning about," Feldman said.

The 31 students were on the road from July 5 through July 30 on a trip that included stops at historic sites and visits with activists. The trip began in New York, where the students learned about the history of the city's Jewish community.

Next they traveled south to Greensboro and Charlotte, N.C. The next stops were Atlanta and Clayton, Ga., followed by Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., and several locations in Mississippi. Their final stop was Memphis.

Ellie Dugan, 17, said her visit to Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham -- where protesters were hosed by police in 1963 -- showed her how historically important the site is today.

"What happened there enabled us to be in the program together," said Dugan, a senior at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.

The summer tour also helped the students learn about their own culture and that of their counterparts. They often had discussions on race and religion, and sometimes the conversations escalated into heated debates. But they learned how to appreciate each others' opinions without taking differences personally, the students said.

"We took a very mature approach where we could separate the building friendships from the debate part," said Leah Danville, 16, a senior at Sidwell Friends School in the District.

"You can't hold grudges or anything like that because it holds back the relationship and holds back the group," Dugan said.

Other students got their first taste of a culture different from their own.

Max Moline's exposure to blacks was minimal before joining Operation Understanding.

"My whole social scene had been with Jews, and there aren't a lot of black Jews," said Moline, 17, a senior at the Charles E. Smith school.

Now, he said, his outlook has changed.

"I've learned to look at things from a less biased perspective," he said.

The teens plan on using what they've learned to teach others during the last portion of Operation Understanding, which ends in January.

Moline plans to start a facilitation program at his synagogue. Danville, the president of her school's Black Student Union, wants to work with other student cultural groups.

"I want to end on a good note," Danville said.

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