African-American and Jewish teens journey together to learn about their shared past, present — and hopeful future

In the first program of its kind, African-American and Jewish teens from Chicago traveled together to the nation’s South on a bus trip called “Let’s Get Together: An Interfaith Journey Toward Justice.”

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Stephanie Goldfarb, JUF’s program director for youth philanthropy and leadership, revs the teens up for their journey. Photo credit: Robert Kusel.

On a Sunday afternoon in late winter, Chicago high school students -- some African American and others Jewish -- sit in a wide circle at the Bright Star Church on Chicago's South Side. During one of several icebreaker exercises, the teens were, literally, asked to trade places. 

"Tell me something interesting about yourself and then go switch seats with a person who isn't the same color as you," directed Pastor Christopher T. Harris, Sr., the charismatic spiritual leader of Bright Star Church and a longtime friend to the Chicago Jewish community. 

"I'm a bundle of joy!" one African-American student shouts out with a giggle and runs over to a chair across the room, changing seats with a Jewish student.

"I can almost write as well with my left hand as my right," a young man declares and switches places with someone else.

Once all the students have changed seats, Harris explains the exercise: "We need to be willing to trade places. We need to understand each other's communities." 

After a teen trip in March, understanding one another is exactly what these teens are learning to do. In the first program of its kind, African-American and Jewish teens from Chicago-a city known for its segregated communities-traveled together to the nation's South on a bus trip called "Let's Get Together: An Interfaith Journey Toward Justice."

This shared journey was the longtime dream of Harris, and his good friend-who the pastor calls his "brother from another mother"-Rabbi Michael Siegel, spiritual leader of Anshe Emet Synagogue. 

For program creators, what's most energizing about the trip is the chance for the teens to meet people they might not have met otherwise. "The most exciting thing is these are kids…who never would have met each other -- kids from neighborhoods that are so deeply segregated," said Anshe Emet's Rabbi D'ror Chankin-Gould, who led the team in creating and executing the trip. "[They are] people who for the first time are talking to someone from the South Side, from the North Side, who is Jewish, who is white, who is black, having an actual conversation."

"Let's Get Together" is part of the Springboard School Break Program, made possible through a collaboration between Anshe Emet, the Anti-Defamation League, Bright Star, Bright Star Community Outreach, Chicago Urban League, and JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council. 

The collaboration between the sponsoring organizations is part of what the staff hopes to model to the students. "The strength, perspectives, and experience we all bring to the table is generating radically unique energy in both of our communities, and I am honored to be able to model such partnership for our young people," said Stephanie Goldfarb, JUF's program director for youth philanthropy and leadership. 

The 36 students -- all 9th through 11th graders -- were selected through an application process, including a short video submission about their community and a mentor recommendation, with scholarship money available to anyone in need.  

On their journey, the students explored their shared past, present, and future. 

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First, they learned about their shared history during the Civil Rights era, a time when both Jews and African Americans marched arm in arm. As part of that education, they visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., and the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, the site of mandated school desegregation. 

As they made their way back north, the teens stopped in St. Louis, Mo., to see a production of The Color Purple , the Tony-winning musical adapted from the Alice Walker novel about African-American women living in the South.

Throughout the four-day trip, the teens learned about racial and social justice and discussed how to tackle present-day obstacles for the two communities, meeting with faith leaders at Citadel of Deliverance in Memphis and Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis.

Finally, looking toward the future, the teens ended their journey with a stop in Springfield, Ill., where they learned about activism and advocacy.

Back home in Chicago, the teens will attend follow-up sessions to keep the dialogue going and continue to advocate together for substantive change. Of course, less formally, there's a hope that they will maintain friendships with teens whose skin color is different from their own. 

Kristian Walker, an African-American sophomore at the Latin School of Chicago, explained that before the trip he didn't have any Jewish friends. But after even the first meeting with other teens from the trip, he said he felt bonds between him and the Jewish students. 

"I'm ecstatic to get to know different people from different backgrounds," Walker said. "We're all the same. There are so many different barriers blocking us, but [really] we're all the same, we're all humans."


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