Abarrier-breaking intergenerational and interracial program launched this year at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains has succeeded in bringing change to its participants.
At the June 14 culminating event of Better Together, Raina Jablon, a member of the synagogue and a sophomore at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School (SPFHS), and Tayonna Lee, a graduating senior and member of the Black Students’ Union at the school, acknowledged some of those changes. Before this year, they said, though they often saw each other in the halls at school, they weren’t friends, but participation in the year-long program at the Reform synagogue changed that — and their perspective on larger issues.
They were among the 25 people, most of them participants, who were at the synagogue for the final gathering, which included a screening of a documentary about the program and insights from those who took part in it.
Temple Sholom is among the approximately 100 Jewish day schools, synagogue schools, and youth groups participating in the national Better Together project, which was established three years ago. The core aim is to foster intergenerational relationships between Jewish teens and Jewish seniors.
The temple’s version of Better Together, conceived by the congregation’s Rabbi Joel Abraham and held for the first time this year, is believed to be the only one that integrates a civil rights and interracial component. It was created in partnership with Judge Leland McGee, president of Social Justice Matters, a civil rights organization in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood area.
Its goals are to bring together members of both generations to build relationships; for the students to learn from the seniors about the civil rights era of the ’50s and ’60s and the progress of securing those rights in the United States; and to break down barriers to dialogue.
The program offered facilitated conversations led by McGee and Abraham, as well as videos about the history of the civil rights movement, and a couple of field trips.
Half of its 32 participants were drawn from Temple Sholom (eight students and eight seniors); the other half came from the broader community.
Participants kept journals and were given a question at the end of each meeting to think about for discussion at the next one.
All Better Together programs receive grant money from a national foundation that has asked to remain anonymous in order to keep the focus on the local programs.
In assessing the program, Lee said, “It was cool to get different perspectives.” Usually, she added, “I only get the black student’s perspective. It’s cool to get other races’ ideas and opinions.” She said that one thing she plans to take away from the experience is “to try to listen more, closely enough to know how a person is feeling.” That’s something she noticed when some of the “older ladies” shared their thoughts. “They had different views from me, and I had to really listen to what they were feeling.”
The adults acknowledged that while finding a few hours on a Sunday evening was not an issue for them, it was sometimes difficult for the busy teens. Nonetheless, they described a fruitful year.
David Schulman, a Jewish student, gained insight into the challenges his African-American peers confront. “One of the things I learned is to know what people feel in situations of discrimination. You can look at statistics, but that’s not what people feel when they actually hear what people think.”
He added, “I was ignorant about what the African-American community experiences, with discrimination and being treated differently. As part of the Jewish community, I don’t face discrimination daily. Occasionally someone points out that I’m Jewish. But that’s the worst of it.”
Abu Bakar Mendheim, a student at Plainfield High School, described some of the discrimination he has experienced as an African-American — including having the father of a white friend not allowing the two to play together as young children — and explained that the project gave him an opportunity to take a deeper look at the progress they’ve made since then. “I didn’t realize how easy we have it or how far we’ve come. People worked so hard to get us to this place.”
Raina was impressed with the older participants’ activism in their youth. “Everyone was involved in the civil rights movement. Maybe what we can learn is that if we want to change the world, we need to be more active and get involved.”
The adults said they felt optimistic about the teens they met. “It was so interesting to hear what they were thinking,” said Margaret Cohen, a member of Temple Sholom. “It made me really feel better about the next generation.”
Ron Lilly of Fanwood, an African-American senior participant who grew up in Buffalo, said he could relate to some of his peers who grew up in Plainfield as they described the race riots in the NJ city of the late 1960s. Listening to the young people and hearing their attitudes and feelings, he said, made him realize that there has been “a lot of progress, but there’s a lot we still need to do.”
David Lieberfarb, a member of Temple Sholom who grew up in Newark, in the mostly then-Jewish Weequahic neighborhood, said his perspective probably did not shift over the course of the year. “But it gives me hope that there are young people participating in programs like this,” he said.
Zaniah Green, Lee’s mother, said, “I wanted to be a part of something bigger.” She added that “everyone is a walking story, and getting to know people brings awareness.”
The group is waiting to hear whether the project will be renewed for another year.
In a prepared statement, McGee said, “I think one of the achievements of the program was opening participants’ eyes to each other’s struggles. Many of our participants of both the younger and more seasoned generations didn’t realize that both Jews and African-Americans have experienced discrimination at various points. This was an important step in opening up the larger conversation about racism in America.”