Jewish parents, children see Farrakhan message as top concern

March 07, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Early in the evening, the participants split up -- parents went upstairs in the Randallstown split-level, teens and young adults stayed down.

Then the serious game began. The subject was hate.

Each group was asked to study a list of eight narratives, all examples of anti-Semitism. Would they select the same three as the most offensive or the most dangerous? If so, would everyone agree on which was the most abhorrent example?

What happened was a surprise to Ofra Fisher, director of the B'nai B'rith Department of Jewish Family Life.

In her experience with this new national program, which is designed to stimulate discussion between Jewish parents and their children, the generations often disagree when out of earshot.

But last week in Randallstown, as the verdicts were scrawled on big sheets of paper taped to the family-room wall, concerns about Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, jumped to the fore and crossed generational lines.

The 10 parents saw other narratives on the list that cut closer to their experiences of anti-Semitism. But they agreed that Minister Farrakhan "blaming black people's problems on Jews" was the most "timely" example of hatred.

Among the 10 high school and college students, the Farrakhan account echoed recent experiences -- interracial debates among young people over whether Minister Farrakhan is evil and dangerous.

"For them, it's not just in the paper and on TV," said Jay Burman, an eighth-grade teacher in Catonsville who was one of the adult leaders for the evening's discussion.

The Farrakhan controversy "is actually happening and affecting everything now," said one girl. Another recalled being challenged by a black classmate who asked, "Why are you jumping on Farrakhan and not the skinheads?" A boy said, "What [Minister Farrakhan] is trying to do for black people may be good, but the means are wrong."

And how should Jewish students and their parents react to the growing interest in Minister Farrakhan? Neither group thought that "doing nothing, because you don't want to further spread this man's views," was an option.

Rather, they agreed, the students should take news accounts of Farrakhan speeches to class and attempt to stimulate rational conversations about anti-Semitism.

The other two examples of anti-Semitism in the "most offensive" category for both the students and their parents involved the telling of a "joke" about the Holocaust and a fight in which a Jewish kid is beaten up and told to move to Israel.

"Don't keep quiet. That's the lesson. Everyone can make a difference," Ms. Fisher, whose office is in the Washington headquarters of B'nai B'rith, the world's largest Jewish organization, said at the end of the session in Arnold Zalis' Randallstown home.

More gatherings are planned by the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization in other Baltimore-area homes and in areas such as Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago, she said.

One of the discoveries at last week's meeting was that the younger participants had experienced less anti-Semitism than their elders. But they did provide some examples, such as a neighbor who turned "Silent Night" up full volume at Christmas.

Daniel Blake of Reisterstown, a 16-year-old student at Owings Mills High School, could recount "no personal experiences" of anti-Semitism, and described an environment without much hate. "My best friend's dad is Christian, and his mother is Jewish."

Aileen Radinsky of Owings Mills, a 1991 graduate of High Point University in High Point, N.C., where she "was one of only eight Jews in a student body of about 1,800," said anti-Semitism does not necessarily afflict a small Jewish minority.

"My Christian friends were very understanding when I just stood there for the Lord's Prayer," she said. "Sometimes they came to the synagogue with me."

In addition to hate, prejudice and stereotyping, Ms. Fisher said, subjects to be addressed in the teen-parent discussion sessions are sex, drugs, alcohol, rock music, tattling and lying. Non-Jewish parents will be asked to join their children as the program expands.

"There are no right or wrong answers when dealing with feelings," she said.

For information, call: (202) 857-6536.

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