Orthodox day school students in Livingston and public school students in Cairo, Ga., swapped perspectives on prejudice and diversity during the first in a series of on-line conversations.
Seniors at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School gathered in a sociology class led by Rabbi Richard Kirsch to speak with their counterparts in the South via Skype on March 14.
The program is part of a pilot project launched by the Museum of Tolerance New York to foster dialogue among members of widely dissimilar communities.
Kushner is a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“The idea had been percolating for quite a while to bring together two schools that are very different, to have an ongoing conversation and to realize they have the same desires and goals, that they are really more similar than they think,” said Natasha Poor, manager of education and public outreach for the museum, who joined the conversation from the Kushner classroom.
Poor had been in contact with both Kirsch and Cairo High School teacher Zerric Clinton and realized the two schools were a perfect match to launch the initiative, known as Breaking BAD: Breaking Boundaries Through Awareness and Dialogue. The three met together at the museum on Manhattan’s east side before enlisting the students.
In the first exercise, students shared posters expressing stereotypes they had encountered; they included “All African-American females are ghetto,” “Just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I’m cheap,” and “You’re too girly to be a lesbian.”
The teens were curious about one another; Cairo students wanted to know if Kushner students used the phrase “Y’all,” why their posters focused so heavily on a connection between Jews and money, if they have a McDonald’s, and if they like soccer.
Kushner students wanted to know how big the Cairo high school is, whether the students had met Jews before, and if it’s true that they still fly the Confederate flag.
The Cairo students involved in the project are part of an art class taught by Clinton.
Student Eli Schwartz of West Orange thought the Cairo students’ posters reflected greater diversity than the Kushner students’, most of which focused on some aspect of misunderstanding about Jews. “Theirs were all about diversity,” he said. “In our school, we’re not very exposed to Hispanic or African-American students. I don’t think the things their posters [suggested], but I was glad to get a feeling for who they are.”
Jenny Grad of Livingston said she is “very much” looking forward to a second conversation. “There just wasn’t enough time. I want to ask about their social life.”
Although it is beginning as a one-semester project, the schools and the museum envision working together for a full year, with many virtual conversations on proposed topics taking place via the Internet and avenues like the classroom tool Edmodo in between Skype sessions.
Before starting the project, Poor visited the Cairo school, and Kushner students met with her on a tour of the museum. In a year-long program, Poor said, she would add one other component: each school would create a project that contributes to their campus or community in a way that reflects their experience.
Students will be contributing ideas for topics, which could include such issues as diversity, tolerance, human trafficking, and bullying, according to Poor. “Students know what they want to talk about and they know what they are interested in. It will make the conversation more dynamic” if they are invested in it, she said.