NEW YORK (Apr. 20)
Disasters often inspire creative remedies. In reaction to the 1991 riots that rocked the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., the Anti-Defamation League created a small peer leadership program to bridge the gap between the Jewish and black communities in New York.
Seven years later, the program has reached over 65,000 high school students across the United States, hundreds more in six European cities and has recently received the attention of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton witnessed the ADL peer leadership program in session last week at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Manhattan, marking the beginning of a new joint diversity program between the ADL and the Boys and Girls Clubs called “Teen-agers Fight Back Against Hate.”
Twenty-three minority students — chosen by the staff of their various Boys and Girl Clubs — sat in the shape of the blade of a shovel as four already-trained peers — Jewish and non-Jewish — stood at the handle and began to dig into sensitive issues: interracial relationships, culture shock, the definition of family and whether or not to take action in the face of injustice.
As part of the program, the same group had met the previous day and discussed several issues, including homophobia and anti-Semitism.
“You can’t just sit back and expect things to change,” said Rachel Weiss, a Jewish 11th grade peer trainer from Brooklyn.
Agreement echoed throughout the room, the participants seemingly unperturbed by the presence of the first lady and the media parade.
“But sometimes you just have to realize that a racist person is saying something because that’s what his parents taught him, and you just have to relax,” voiced a shy African American girl.
A Hispanic peer trainer giggled as he tried to pronounce Anti-Defamation League, and Weiss didn’t know that NOW stood for the National Organization for Women. But with remarkable confidence, they cited the two organizations as examples of people taking action, fighting for “what’s right.”
The retired chairman and CEO of Playtex Products Inc. and an active leader in both the ADL and the Boys and Girls Clubs, Joel Smilow, conceived of the idea to bring the two groups together and donated $2.4 million to support it.
After a school decides to implement the peer program, teachers choose students as peer leaders and trainers from all backgrounds.
The students make at least a one-year commitment to attend weekly meetings and several daylong training seminars, and to run programs in their communities and schools.
In return, many qualify for ADL’s paid summer internships as well as free trips to Washington, Europe and Israel.
“We always try to network the peer trainers with all the others around the world,” said Robin Sclafani, director of student programs at the ADL.
“The reason that we are involved with tolerance outside of the Jewish community,” said Myrna Shinbaum, director of communications at the ADL, “is because we believe that if there is tolerance for all minorities, America will be a safer place for Jews.”
The idea seems to be working.
“I heard that Jews were self-centered,” 15-year-old Adrian Quarless of the Bronx said at last week’s gathering, “but now I see that there’s all types.
“They have had a lot of discrimination against them, too, that I never knew before.”