Black and Jewish Youth Embark On Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Courtesy of Operation Understanding DC

Black and Jewish D.C. youth have gone on summer civil rights pilgrimages for years. Here, Susan Barnett and Elia Emerson, pose on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1997.

The relationship between the African American and Jewish communities is long and complicated, with periods of collaboration and discord. But one group of black and Jewish D.C. youth is looking to bridge the gap that has grown in recent years.

The teenagers, members of non-profit Operation Understanding DC, boarded a bus Wednesday morning and will spend 23 days retracing the path of the Freedom Riders as part of a civil rights pilgrimage.

Highlights include crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., meeting community organizers and visiting various churches, synagogues and mosques.

There is a history of black and Jewish Americans working together, particularly during the civil rights movement. For instance, Jews were involved in the establishment of the NAACP and participated in non-violent protests. Locally, Jews joined Howard University students in 1960 to push Glen Echo Park, then an amusement park, to desegregate. But the positive relationship between the two communities has declined in recent decades as legal civil rights victories were won but class and racial disparities grew.

In 1995, OUDC founder Karen Kalish started the organization after she “looked around at the black and Jewish communities here in D.C. and realized they weren’t working together to pursue the progressive goals they had united around in the 1960s,” OUDC executive director Rachael Feldman said.

Participant Curtis Tyger, 17, attends Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in D.C. where he said he doesn’t get the same kind of exposure to different people and cultures.

“When I tell my friends who are not in the program that we collaborate with Jewish students, they look at me and don’t see the importance of that,” he said. “They just think stick with your own — black people have their side, Jewish people have their side.”

For months, the youth participated in Jewish-African American dialogues and learned about each other’s histories and cultures. Some Jewish students said they were surprised by the extent to which blacks have suffered under racial atrocities. Similarly, some black students were surprised when hearing detailed accounts of the Holocaust.

Courtesy of Operation Understanding DC

A bus carrying black and Jewish youth beginning a civil rights pilgrimage departs D.C. Wednesday morning

Joanna Kramer, 16, said she has been exposed “to such a range of beliefs and people, and it really forces you to break down your stereotypes.”

On the eve of the bus trip, the youth spoke excitedly about visiting the places and meeting the people they have learned about over the months, a history that has inspired 17-year-old Sivan Bruce, 17.

“[Youth] play a very important role. I like to look at history, and when you look at the Freedom Rides, and the marches, those were all young people,” she said.

  • Audrey N

    OUDC Rocks!  We are participating in the Class 17 program and it has been a wonderful experience for us all so far.  We have met many very interesting families and are grateful to be a part of OUDC!   This experience would not be possible without the leadership of the dynamic duo:  Rachael and AJ!!  The Nwanze Family

  • Nelseh

    We are also participating in OUDC, and it is amazing.  The kids are growing and we can see how wonderful they will be as our future leaders! It is such a blessing to meet and connect with these folks that we would never have otherwise met.