At the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and in the shadow of history, 100 black and Jewish teen leaders gathered to re-enact Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to commemorate the birthday of the slain civil rights leader this week.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters, ‘ proclaimed Michael Glasby II, at 10, the youngest participant.
Six speeches were read by black and Jewish students as part of “Visions of Peace and Justice,” a program in which black and Jewish students linked arms and sang freedom songs to the accompaniment of civil rights guitarist Joe Glazer.
Arnie Aronson, who coordinated the Jewish community’s participation in the 1963 March on Washington, reminisced about the fear and idealism surrounding that march and introduced the student speakers.
The teens included black participants from area churches and high schools and Jewish participants from Boston, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida and Maryland taking part in Panim el Panim: Jewish High School in Washington.
“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community of Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things,” said Joey Sector, 15, of Pennsylvania, reading the speech of Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke prior to King at the March on Washington.
“The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem,” Sector read. “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
The other four presentations included the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speeches of South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, South African President Nelson Mandela, HoIocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“We felt that it would be important for a new generation of blacks and Jews to understand the history of our struggle together for social justice and against racism in America,” said Aaron Goldman, chairman of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, which sponsors the Panim el Panim program.
“What better way to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday than by reaffirming our joint commitment to his vision?” Goldman said.
Besides the ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial, the participants in the Panim program also held discussions on social justice and equal opportunity with Ralph Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and with Judge William Sessions, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They also engaged in a two-hour dialogue with black teens and heard from veteran Jewish lobbyist Hyman Bookbinder on why Jews should continue to campaign for civil rights. “We do not yet have a color-blind society,” Sessions told the students. He urged them “to associate yourself with the problems of social injustice, try to feel the problem and then go out there and get involved.”
“Our goal is to teach Jewish teens that politics is not a dirty word,” said Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, director of the Panim el Panim program and coordinator of the event at the Lincoln Memorial.
“Hopefully, by the end of a day like today they will understand that politics, including coalition politics, is the process by which individuals can change the world for the better. This is one of Dr. King’s enduring legacies,” said Schwarz.
Randi Green, 15, of Cherry Hill, N.J., said after the dialogue with black teens that “by meeting together it made us all aware of how alike our two communities are.”
When the youngsters first sat down in small groups to share their views of the challenges facing their respective communities, the similarities were not immediately apparent.
Blacks spoke about teen pregnancy, black-on-black violence and the need for more education. Jews spoke about the long-term dangers of assimilation and religious divisions.
The similarities began to emerge when each shared the pains of prejudice and their yearning for communal unity. There was consensus that even though the challenges facing each community were generally different, their solution lay in a reassertion of values, a mission that the teens saw as their own.
The Rev. Don Robinson of the First Baptist Church in Washington, who brought a group of students, said at the conclusion of the program, “I think we accomplished a lot today. We opened a new dialogue with new people and people made new friends and we now have something to build on.”
Timothy Wright, 17, a senior at Spingarn High School said, “This interaction was great. It’s amazing how much blacks and Jews have in common. We have more that unites us than divides us. I’ve never been involved with anything like this. I learned a lot and made a lot of new friends.”