Blog  NFTY-PAR: How do we carry our ancestors’ experiences?

NFTY-PAR: How do we carry our ancestors’ experiences?

By Ian Zeitlin, NFTY-PAR Member and MaLTY President

NFTY-PAR and Operation Understanding

This summer I went on a trip with a program I was accepted into called Operation Understanding or OU. We went to NYC and all over the South including Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. OU takes 16 rising seniors each year; 4 Jewish guys, 4 Jewish girls, 4 Black guys, and 4 Black girls. The program focuses on leadership through diversity. Studies have shown that if you put a group of diverse people in a room they will come up with more than double the great ideas than would a group of people of the same background.

On the trip we learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust. We learn about our shared history and struggle. We met many Civil Rights Movement leaders, activists, and leaders within the community, both Black and Jewish. Although it feels cliché to say this, the biggest theme on the trip was to understand: Black understanding Jewish and Jewish understanding Black and for each side to understand itself.

To me the most pivotal moment on the trip was during one of our group meetings in Richmond, VA. We were all sitting in our group leaders room waiting for two of the group members. They walked in and told us to turn on CNN. The headline read, “George Zimmerman not Guilty.” The room went silent. Everyone’s heads turned towards the ground. Most of the black kids started to cry and many of the Jewish kids looked around in dismay. Suddenly I started to sob, harder than I have ever before. One of the black kids finally spoke, looking as angry as anyone I have ever seen. He said, “This is not the first time I’ve had to deal with this. I have lost friends and family. In Philadelphia they are closing 26 schools and building a prison. I want to know what the government is doing for the Black community.” The next day we went to the Richmond Holocaust museum and all of the Black kids were there for us just like we were there for them the night before.

During the trip I learned a lot about what it means to be Black in America. There are different social rules and a different history of a more recent suffering. When we went to Selma, AL we had a chance to experience what the hardship was like. We pull up in front of an abandoned warehouse and the sweltering 90-degree heat. A woman got on our bus and yelled at us to get off and stop wasting her time. She had us line up with our legs spread and our hands on the wall in front of us. She then commanded that one of us pat down all of the others and then paraded us around a park with no shade. When we reached a bridge she selected eight of us calling them the good slaves. She had them choose four to die and four to live. She made each good slave line up facing the slave they sentenced to death and scolded the good slaves for thinking they have any power. She then led us into a musky, pitch black warehouse and had us line up in two rows with the foreheads of those in the back row on the back of the slave in front of them. We were then forced to find our way up a flight of stairs and then down into a damp hull of a ship. When the last slave was in, she slammed the hatch. We were left there for about ten minutes packed 16 people in a space for maybe 10. We were scared, sweating, some of us crying. When one of us tried to speak, the woman above deck stomped on the ground and yelled at us. We were then brought out and sat down to decompress and debrief on our experience. The lights turn on, the fans start to circulate air, and we are welcomed with a hug. We only experienced about 30 minutes of what slavery was like. I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to live like that every day of your life.

NFTY-PAR & Operation UnderstandingThe woman who led us through this simulation, Afriye, explained to us all that this is the burden put on the shoulders of Black Americans. She told us that the Black community has to deal with the pressure that their ancestors fought and lived through all of this so they can be here today and what they are going to do is judged as whether or not to be worthy of that fight.

What I have gained from this profound experience is the understanding that, no matter how prevalent, this burden is a part of all of my Black peers’ lives. For some it was bestowed upon them in a positive way, showing pride in a son or daughter for doing what they are doing as worthy of the struggle. But for some it is told to them negatively, that what they are doing with their life does not honor their ancestors and in some cases shames them. This is the burden of daily life and the least we can do is try to understand.