Under most circumstances, teens from Scarsdale and Yonkers travel in different worlds. The distance between those neighborhoods is measured in more than the few miles that separate them.
But for the past year, J-Teen Leadership, a community service organization, has worked with the Elm Street Youth Center in Yonkers to partner on community service projects. They’re also come together to socialize informally, including sharing celebrations like Chanukah and Kwanzaa.
“This project captured our attention because it really dovetails with the work we embrace at UJA-Federation: caring for the vulnerable in New York, feeding our neighbors, teaching the value of tikkun olam to the next generation, and building bridges within the community,” said Neil Steinberg, chair of the Jewish Social Action Month initiative at UJA-Federation of New York, which is funding the program. The modest grant pays for the buses used for transportation, food and some of the supplies needed for the projects.
As Abbe Marcus, director of J-Teen Leadership, said, “It’s great to combine two groups. We wanted to form a community. We want to continue the relationship. It’s not an educational program; it’s a chance to know each other.”
Last year the two groups spoke with a Holocaust survivor and then cleaned up a vacant lot near the Elm Street Youth Center to create a mini-park, where the teens planted a tree in observance of Yom HaShoah. They’ve also attended the American Jewish Congress’ Diversity Breakfast and are currently preparing for a Midnight Run to help the homeless living on New York City streets.
The teens alternate their monthly meetings between the J-Teen space in White Plains, and the Elm Street Youth Center in Yonkers, which run by Westhab, a not-for-profit that works with homeless and low-income families. At the gatherings, the teens discuss upcoming projects and offer prayers from their respective faiths before they share food.
“We love interfaith work, and love learning about other cultures, religions and ways of life,” said Marc Hersch, a senior at Scarsdale High School and J-Teen’s co-chair. “The best part is that we had many meetings, and we know these teens.”
Sidney Reeves, a sophomore at Riverside High School in Yonkers, agreed. “This is a chance to have interaction with other teenagers we don’t see often, like Jewish teens,” he said.
Danielle Silverman, a senior at New Rochelle High School, added, “They’re so much like us. We like the same kind of music. They’re fun, outgoing people. It’s been a great experience. … They’re very similar to J-Teen, with their work in community service.”
Between meetings, participants connect on Facebook, said Janelle Mroz, a junior at Yonkers Middle High School.
Such interactions are very much a desired by-product of the working relationship. “It’s a great project for teen leadership groups,” said Raymond Reid, site coordinator for the Elm Street Youth Center. “In both programs, we’re engaged in doing social justice work.” The Elm Street group does food drives and visits the elderly in local nursing homes.
Dedication to common causes underscores the teens’ similarities.
“We’re very serious and come to accomplish a mission,” said Hersch. “The project brings us together.”
For Reid, the relationships that form offer opportunities beyond the social action work the teens pursue so avidly.
“You never know how anyone else lives outside your own ethnic group,” he said. “It’s important to first create friendships and understanding, and commit to a cause. Just creating the friendship is the biggest benefit. This should go on forever. Getting better in the world has to start somewhere.”