A Bridge Between Schools,Cultures


The students at Cathedral High School and those at the Magen David Yeshivah couldn’t be more different in terms of faith and ethnic background.

The former is an all-girls Catholic school in Midtown Manhattan, while the latter, located in Bensonhurst, serves boys and girls from preschool through 12th grade. Students at Cathedral are drawn from families from a variety of cultures and national backgrounds, while those at Magen David come mostly from Syrian-Jewish families in Brooklyn, allowing the school to claim that it’s the “cornerstone” of the city’s Sephardic community.

But students from both schools and about 20 others discovered how much they shared last month while attending the annual Youth Summit organized by YouthBridge-NY, an independent organization run by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Those who attended the daylong conference, aimed at high-school students, are all leaders or potential leaders in their schools or communities, said Karen Lander, program director at YouthBridge. Each applied to the program after demonstrating an interest in learning about social issues, as well as a desire to improve their environment. And, while attending the event, the various contingents of students each identified a problem in their school or neighborhood they’d like to address, along with a plan of action for doing so.

In the process, the event’s 150 or so participants not only picked up additional leadership skills, Lander said, but may have learned about the value of diversity.

“The mission of our conference is to get them inspired and skilled enough to go back to their schools and create a social-justice project,” Lander said. But just as important is the hope among conference organizers that students would return to their schools with “the view that diversity is an opportunity rather than a challenge.”

The March 8 conference, hosted by UJA-Federation of New York, drew students from public, private and parochial high schools, said Lander, who works for JCRC’s intergroup relations division, also known as Cause-NY.

The event featured a keynote speaker, Adam Braun, who founded and heads Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit group that funds the construction of schools in some of the world’s poorest countries. Other activities included a case-study session, in which students look at various community projects and how they’ve fared; a skill-building workshop teaching what Lander called the “basics of community organizing”; and an action-planning session, in which contingents from each school identify an issue that concerns them and discuss a strategy for addressing the problem.

The conference is among several programs managed or sponsored by JCRC to train emerging leaders, said Robert Kaplan, director of Cause-NY and one of the event’s facilitators. YouthBridge, for instance, also runs a two-year fellowship for high-school juniors and seniors, who attend monthly leadership sessions around such subjects as marketing, networking, conflict resolution and public speaking.

Kaplan’s division also sponsors similar fellowships in partnership with other institutions for the leaders of local faith and ethnic communities, as well as nonprofit groups. All those programs — the Brooklyn Fellowship, the Queens Fellowship and We Are the Bronx — are aimed at providing “core leadership skills” and, more important, lessons in “how to solve problems together,” Kaplan said. A fourth fellowship, Community Connections, trains emerging leaders in various Jewish organizations, including synagogues and Jewish Community Centers.

Each of those programs benefit not only their fellows, but the Jewish community, as well, according to JCRC officials.

“Our goal is to know every up-and-coming leader in every community that can work with the Jewish community in building the city together,” easing any tensions and trying to avoid conflict, said Kaplan, who notes that his division started just after the Crown Heights riots 20 years ago to prevent such an eruption from ever taking place again.

The leaders trained by JCRC “are our entry into other communities,” said Dori Zofan, assistant director of Cause-NY. Should the need arise, Zofan said, JCRC’s professionals will know who to contact in each community and, if they don’t, “we’ll know someone who knows that person.”

One of those leaders includes Victor Wong, 23, who participated in the YouthBridge Fellowship from 2005 to 2006, while he was a student at Stuyvesant High School. Wong told The Jewish Week that he applied for the fellowship after his mother saw an article about the program “in one of the Chinese papers.”

While in high school, Wong said he “started out as a very shy, bookish kid.” But as a result of the fellowship, he became “more outspoken” and more aware of the city’s diversity. “It taught me how to empathize with people who are not like me,” said Wong, who is now the director of business outreach at the Partnership for New York City and a member of Community Board 11 in Southern Brooklyn. He’s also planning to pursue a career in public service, perhaps even running for elective office in the future.

Many of the students who attended this month’s Youth Summit could be heading in the same direction. Of the 150 teens who attended the event, at least 10 have already applied for the YouthBridge Fellowship, Zofan said.

The three participants from Cathedral High School — Stephanie, who was born in Guyana; Katherine, whose family is from Honduras; and Vilirjana, whose parents are from Albania and Kosovo — all spoke enthusiastically to The Jewish Week about the skills they believed the learned at the conference.

“My participation in this stems from my wanting to become secretary of state,” said Vilirjana, who, like the other students, gave only her first name. She’s always been interested in international affairs, she added, partly because of the attempted genocide in Kosovo.

As for their social-action project, the three students decided to focus on the influence of media and technology, which they blame for many of the world’s troubles.

The students from Magen David Yeshiva chose to address cyber-bullying, an issue affecting teens in just about every school, said Jack Avidan, a 10th-grader.

The highlight of the conference for Avidan was meeting other students from an array of backgrounds and discovering that “many of them” thought in similar ways, he said. That also rang true for Frieda Gindi, another 10th-grader, who said she realized during the event that “you need to communicate with other people.”

Students from Midwood High School, a public school and one of the most active in YouthBridge, decided to form a chapter of Pencils of Promise at their school, said Gabrielle Wilks, 14, president of her freshman class. But for Wilks, whose parents are Puerto Rican and Jamaican, the discussion that interested her the most at the conference concerned bullying.

“We just sat and talked about the different ways people can be cyber-bullied and how people have bullied throughout history,” she said.