SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- ":Did you participate in any civil rights work?”; “Do you remember your first experience with discrimination?"; ''Was there a time you had to stand up against prejudice?”
These are some of the questions African American and Jewish teens and senior citizens have been asking each other for the past nine months as they meet in Scotch Plains. They have also been looking to the future, asking each other, “What do you think we can do to make the world a better place?”.
The program is one of the many “Better Together” initiatives taking place all across the country, funded by grants from a respected Jewish foundation. Such programs typically involve Jewish teens and seniors, and focus on various themes. Conceived by Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, this latest initiative brings together both African Americans and Jews from the area and focuses on civil rights and social justice.
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Abraham, who leads the project along with Judge Leland McGee and Raphael Kasen, believes that face to face conversations can be pivotal. He asked teens in his congregation what brought about significant attitudinal changes and action in their lives. In most cases, they cited direct in-person interactions as being the most powerful in leading to changes in their lives.
The rabbi said the program participants speak "not only about racial justice, but about who they are."
Judge McGee, who wrote much of the curriculum, said: “I believe that the only way for us to move forward is to work together. I believe we need to bridge gaps. We need to create this bridge.”
He had told the participants at the beginning: "My hope for you is that you will find common ground.”
Tayonna Lee said she values that common ground. Lee said being involved with the Black Student Union at Scotch Plains- Fanwood High School for several years has helped her get a perspective about the experiences of blacks. However, she wanted to be involved with Better Together to get the perspective of other groups as well.
Ron Lilly was enlightened by talking with the teens, who he observed are half a century younger than him.
"Too often we assume that adults have all the answers, and I find that's certainly not the case," Lilly said, adding that he would like to see "a meeting of the minds on various issues".
"I think that is important to know how people feel when they're in situations of discrimination,” teenager David Schulman of Scotch Plains, said. “When you know how people feel and think, you want to do things to prevent them from feeling hurt and uncomfortable, and to prevent discrimination and fear.”
Sandra Abraham said for her it was eye-opening to hear the teens speak.
"It made me really feel better about the world and about this generation coming," she said.
Abubakar Mendheim of Roselle, a teen, reflected that any ease or privilege we have today, comes only as a result of dedication and commitment. "People worked so hard to get us to the place we are now", he stated.
Raina Jablon, a teen from Fanwood, reflected upon how every one of the senior citizens was active in the time of the civil rights movement. "If I want to and we want to change the world we also need to be more active and get involved", she observed.
Members of the public interested in participating starting in September, when the program may be expanded, are asked to contact Rabbi Abraham at (908) 889-4900 or email@example.com.
Zaniah Green of Scotch Plains, Tayonna Lee's mother and a participant, said, 'We see that everything is cyclical. It keeps going around."
For this reason, she said, it is important to have conversations with each other, and to connect and learn.
She shared her view that when people "be who they are" and become leaders in doing so, a movement begins. Green reflected that most of the participants did not know each other prior to coming together. "We actually started opening up and sharing our innermost feelings. That's a beautiful thing."