By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Chicago teens, African American and Jewish, traced the path of the civil rights movement on a civil rights road trip during Spring Break.
Since then, they’ve vowed to pursue their new friendships and shared experiences to push for civil rights in Chicago, a historically segregated city, and deal with issues that both communities are facing today.
The five-day trip called “Let’s Get Together” came out of a collaboration of several organizations: Anshe Emet Synagogue, Bright Star Church, Bright Star Community Outreach, JUF/Springboard, ADL and Chicago Urban League. The trip was funded predominately by Springboard JUF, which offers several subsidized spring break activities for Jewish teens.
On the social justice tour, 35 teens visited various museums and landmarks like the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered 50 years ago. It is now a civil rights museum. They stood in the hotel room where he died and went to the church where he gave his last speech.
They stopped in Springfield to discuss legislative issues, how government works and how teens can get involved in making change. They toured the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Springfield and Central Illinois African History Museum.
They visited Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., the site of forced school desegregation after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
They learned about Jewish history in St. Louis, during a visit to Central Reform Synagogue, where founding Rabbi Susan Talve is one of the leading rabbis in the country doing social justice work. They learned about the richness of the Jewish tradition and Jewish imperative to be part of a social justice movement. They saw the stage play “The Color Purple” and talked to the actors afterward.
“The opportunity meant a chance for Jewish and black students who live in such a deeply segregated city to both learn about each other’s history,” said Rabbi D’ror Chankin-Gould, assistant rabbi at Ashe Emet, a key organizer for the trip, educator and student chaperone. “They learned about the present realities for our two communities and how to build their sense of power and collaboration in moving toward shaping the future.”
Daina Wilson, 16, of Kenwood Academy, thought the trip was “such a great learning experience.” Through group encounter activities, “I learned how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I learned a lot about the Jewish community and African American community. Instead of just being in the classroom, we actually went to different historical sites to view the actual artifacts of each other’s history.”
Her new friend, Ariana Handelman, 16, of Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, asked Daina if she could speak at Ariana’s school. “I couldn’t make it but gave her a part of my speech. We’re trying to spread the word about the trip.”
Roh Reid Waheed, whose daughter Wyaneann, a Jamaican, attended the trip said her daughter came away with the idea that even though she was different than the Jewish teens, there are similarities. “We share the same interests,” she told her mother. Parents of the teens met each other before the trip.
Staff from all the organizations built a curriculum from the ground up. “The whole trip centered on uncovering the shared history of social justice in the black and Jewish community during the civil rights era,” said Stephanie Goldfarb, program director of youth philanthropy and leadership for Jewish United Fund. “The teens explored what makes our communities similar and the shared history we have in terms of displacement, Diaspora and social justice work and also what sets our communities apart. The goal was to bring these communities together and to establish real coalition building between the two.”
Ariana said she made friends she can count on for life. She said she was most impressed with the visit to Central High School. “Walking the street that was filled with a mob and the Little Rock Nine had to push their way through to get to the school. That was really powerful.”
In one group exercise, the teens listed all the stereotypes they could think of for Jews and blacks. “Not that we believed them, but there were a lot more African American stereotypes because racism is a lot more current and prevalent in our lives right now than Jewish stereotypes,” Ariana said.
Nicole Carter, director of community strategy and development at Bright Star, said she was most impressed by the interaction of the young people. “How open and welcoming they were to each other. I think that’s going to broaden and deepen. Culturally, the young people in the community are going to do work that advocates causes that support each other’s communities.”
Now that the trip is over, Ariana wants the African American teens to come to programs in the Jewish community. “I want to do amazing things like speak and march and be public, but I also just want to be friends with them and hang out together.”