1,000 youths seek answers to world's woes

December 30, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

About 1,000 Jewish teen-agers have come to Baltimore from all over the United States and Canada with a mission: to learn what's wrong with the world and how to make it better.

Yesterday, crowded into a ballroom of an Inner Harbor hotel, the boys and girls in jeans and running shoes, ages 14 to 18, cheered confidently when told by a Democratic congressman-elect, "The election was about the generation gap, generational change.

"I consider you part of the generation that is taking over the leadership of this country."

The speaker, one of their mentors, was Eric Fingerhut, 32, from Cleveland. He is a former regional president of United Synagogue Youth, whose five-day, 42nd annual convention at the Hyatt Regency concludes tomorrow.

Mr. Fingerhut brought some warnings related to the theme of this week's meeting, "Being Jewish in a Non-Jewish World."

Citing examples of black and Jewish stereotyping he has encountered in his political life, Mr. Fingerhut said, "We have to decide how we are going to project our Jewish identity."

He urged members of his young audience to:

* "Make sure that what our non-Jewish friends and neighbors know about us is not what we have, but what we are."

* "Make sure people know we are not involved in the American government just because we want to support Israel."

* "Make sure our non-Jewish neighbors know that Israel is the most welcoming, the most inclusive country this world has ever seen."

Mr. Fingerhut's father fought for the United States in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Mr. Fingerhut said, and he added that Jewish participation in governing this country extends to many issues, foreign and domestic.

"We are carrying our load. It's our responsibility," he said.

Yesterday afternoon, the teen-agers and about 200 older advisers -- leaders of congregations within the Conservative branch of Judaism -- explored a series of challenging social questions in nine workshops, ranging from trends on college campuses, the AIDS crisis and religious cults to environmental problems and poverty.

Leading the discussion of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Noreen Halpern, youth director of Temple Beth El in ** Rochester, N.Y., told about 40 girls and 20 boys, "Those days of thinking it's a gay problem are gone. . . . Most of you in this room are sexually active. If you have to have sex, what is the best way?"

L The answer came in unison from all over the room: "Condoms."

Ms. Halpern then addressed about one-third of the audience. "Do you guys like to wear condoms?" she asked. And most of the boys shouted, "No."

Saying that "we Jews are activists" and that "many of you have voted this year or will be voting soon," Ms. Halpern urged the group to pressure the federal government for higher expenditures on AIDS research and broader eligibility for the funds.

"Don't leave this session thinking there is something called safe sex," she said. "What's the exception?" An answer came from several voices, "Abstinence."

Today, the teen-agers will board 26 buses and be transported to locations throughout the Baltimore area to carry out their obligations under the Jewish dictum, "tzorchei tzibur" -- responding to the needs of the community.

Among the youngsters' destinations:

* The St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Shop at 6 N. Central Ave., where they will unload and sort truckloads of donated material.

* Our Daily Bread soup kitchen at 411 Cathedral St., where they will help feed the hungry.

* The Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center at 2434 W. Belvedere Ave., where they will spend time with the elderly.

* The Ark nursery for homeless children at 2900 E. Fayette St., where they will help out.

When Ms. Halpern asked her listeners yesterday what the primary obligation of Jews is, a boy answered, "To be fruitful and multiply." She corrected him. "Saving a life," she said.

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