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Special to the JTA Black and Jewish Teens Share Heritage in Africa and Israel

A group of 12 Black and Jewish teenagers from this city shed tears together at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and at Ile Goree in Senegal, West Africa, site of slave shipments to America. They spent a month visiting Israel and Senegal on a trip planned by Black and Jewish leadership in Philadelphia led by George Ross, former Board chairman of the American Jewish Committee’s Philadelphia chapter, and U.S. Rep. William Gray III (D. Pa.).

“I saw the strength of both people,” said Loree Jones, recalling both countries upon her return home. “The slaves got by by being strong. And in Israel, Jews had hope and courage to protect their lives and their homeland.”

The themes of strength gained from history and hope to be shaped in the future were repeated frequently as the students spoke of Black-Jewish relations and the lessons learned from their travels.

“We participated in something that’s never been done before. One of the main points that came out is how close we got. We bared our souls to each other,” said Steven Segal, a senior from Girard College in Philadelphia.

“We learned so much,” they all agreed. “Each night, we met to discuss how different things affected us,” said Tamara Ross of Bodine High School for International Affairs. “We each found our place in the group and learned to work together,” Jones added. “And it wasn’t just us, but we could look to the adults, like Congressman Gray and Mr. Ross working together, to see what Black-Jewish relation could be,” she continued.

The project, over II months in the planning was originally suggested by Gray after he learned of a Black student trip to an Israeli Kibbutz. He expanded the idea to include Black and Jewish students and a visit to African culture.

A SPECIAL POIGNANCY

For the Jewish students, seeing their own roots with Black friends took on special poignancy. “If you grow up not knowing you should hate each other, we can start young and be an example for others to show we can get along. I want to share with everyone in Philadelphia and everywhere that it can be done, and it will be done,” stated Steve Segal.

At Beit Hatefutzot in Tel Aviv, the students began to understand the history of exile and dispersion of Jewry around the world and the centrality of Israel to Jews. “I brought back an impression about the culture, the state of mind, the hopes and fears of the Jewish people,” Jones explained. “They will be strong to protect their homeland — and Blacks know what it means to be strong.” Tony Stills was impressed that “no matter what happend to Jews, they are a family.”

Part of the itinerary was planned to allow the students time to discuss the differences in perceptions, feelings and history about themselves and the two other countries. In Senegal “people were very proud of their heritage and also of their technological advances. Past and present were mixed together wherever we went,” added Brett Singer of George Washington High School. Singer learned that Senegalese today often repeat their names in greeting since “slaves were stripped of everything — their identity, their names, their clothes. So, to say your name over and over meant you were proud of who you were.” Jews and Blacks alike were impressed with Senegalese hospitality. “There is so much poverty, and yet they shared anything they had with you,” said Michele Seligman, of Girls High School.

BARRIERS CAN BE BROKEN DOWN

The students will be speaking to the press, radio and television before returning to school and addressing assemblies and youth groups throughout the year. Irving Broudy, a member of the board of the AJCommittee’s Philadelphia chapter, added “the leadership and planning committee made lasting friendships in working on the project, and that is one important result too. And the parents formed a network — when one child would call from overseas, they let each other know the latest news. So at all levels, we made friendships that will last.” The Planning Committee hopes to make the project an annual event.

Whether pushing the tour bus out of the mud in rainy-season Senegal, or having the “incredible, unbelievable” experience of climbing Masada, the students agreed with Steve Segal’s summary: “We can start young and be an example for others to show how we got along. Barriers that might exist can be broken down.”

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