Course offers black, Jewish students a chance to find common ground Northwestern meets Beth Tfiloh

November 16, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

The matter at hand was Steven Rubenstein's yarmulke, a small, green skullcap with multicolored diamonds on the front and his first name embroidered in white on the back.

"What's the purpose of wearing them?" asked Chanagra Massey.

"It makes a separation between us and God. It shows respect to God," Jared Plitt offered.

"What happens if you lose it?" Nicole Owens wanted to know.

"You get another one," Steven Rubenstein said.

These were high school honor students -- half Jews from Beth Tfiloh School, half blacks from Northwestern High School -- eating doughnuts and talking yarmulkes.

But if the conversation sounded a bit like show-and-tell, there was good reason: Relations between these young Jews and blacks are in their infancy.

The students attend schools that are exactly two miles apart. Northwestern, a nearly all-black public school, is on Park Heights Avenue in the city. Beth Tfiloh, a private Jewish day school, is on Old Court Road in Baltimore County.

As the students are the first to point out, they live in different worlds.

A special course, "Keeping the Faith: The Cultural Heritage of African-Americans and American Jews," has brought a dozen youths from the two schools together at Baltimore Hebrew University.

For many of the students, the course is the first chance they've had to get to know a member of the other group on anything but a superficial level.

"Everybody at school and everybody within a two-mile radius of my house is Jewish," says Avi Benus, a Beth Tfiloh junior who lives in Pikesville.

Gilbert Thomas, a Northwestern senior, says: "We heard rumors they were shy and would have problems about interacting. It turned out they had heard the same rumors about us."

The bridge-building course, sponsored by the Beverly and Jerome Fine Fund at Baltimore Hebrew University, meets for two hours one morning a week.

Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog, an adjunct professor at BHU, lectures to the students about the Jewish experience. Eric Bledsoe, a political science professor at Baltimore City Community College, explores black history.

The group reads texts, keeps journals and has made two field trips -- one to the Jewish Heritage Center in East Baltimore, the other to the Great Blacks in Wax Museum on East North Avenue.

A recent midterm exam included such essay questions as, "What is the legacy of slavery for contemporary society?" and "Jews are called 'The Chosen People.' Please explain."

Teachers and students come to the course aware that blacks and Jews, once allies in a civil rights movement that described black liberation with Old Testament imagery of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery, seem to have drifted apart and, in some cases, become hostile.

Rabbi Essrog stresses the commonality of the black and Jewish experiences -- struggling minorities sharing a history of slavery and oppression.

"We try to teach black children and Jewish children a sense of tolerance and understanding of each other. There are a lot of similarities between the two communities," he says.

Mr. Bledsoe sees American blacks and American Jews through the lens of today's politics. He says the parallels between the two groups have diminished in recent years.

"The bottom line is to recognize that everybody's got their own interests," he says. "But there's a need for folks to have access to one another. There's common ground. That's the hope of this class -- that a lot of issues transcend racial and ethnic considerations."

Rabbi Essrog told the students at Wednesday's class that the word "ghetto," sometimes used to describe the segregated, black slums of U.S. cities, was originally the name of the overcrowded, disease-ridden home of the Jews in 16th century Venice.

How to survive ghetto life? One way is to preserve tradition, the rabbi suggested. He praised the popularity among black Americans of African-style "multicolored hats and shawls -- what do you call them?"

"Kente cloth and --ikis -- that's what you're talking about, right?" asked Gilbert Thomas.

"Yes, it shows pride in tradition, like this," Rabbi Essrog said, touching his yarmulke.

What is at stake when blacks and American Jews don't understand each other became clearer to Beth Tfiloh's Avi Benus and Jared Plitt last month. Their school soccer team got into a bench-clearing brawl with a team from Mervo, an almost all-black city school. The dispute had begun when ethnic slurs were made at an earlier game.

"The game couldn't be completed, several adults were knocked to the ground, and there were all sorts of racist and anti-Semitic remarks," says Fred Hewitt, who monitors sportsmanship for the Maryland Scholastic Association.

The schools aren't likely to schedule each other again any time soon, he says.

Zipora Schorr, director of education at Beth Tfiloh, says the program with Northwestern provides a useful counterpoint to the "isolated" incident at the soccer game.

"The Northwestern program stands for everything we hope our students would subscribe to," she says. "It's a beautiful thing to learn there's another way to deal with people."

The students in "Keeping the Faith" are under no illusions that their little group will make a major difference in easing tensions between blacks and Jews.

Devora Genut, a Beth Tfiloh senior, says many of her classmates view Northwestern as a school plagued with the usual catalog of urban maladies, led by drugs and violence.

"They don't know about these kids," she says. "They're just as smart as any kids in private school."

Likewise, Chanagra Massey says her Northwestern schoolmates "wouldn't understand" that they could get along with -- and even like -- Jewish kids from Pikesville.

"But if they saw what we saw, they might," she says.

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