To Elizabeth Wilkins, covering her hair with a wig for the rest of her life after marriage was difficult to imagine. “I don’t know if I could deal with it,” said Wilkins, 17, her own hair tied in curly dreadlocks, after watching a stylist adjust a woman’s sheitel at Gianna’s salon in Borough Park last week.
One of 24 black and Jewish Washington-area high school students on a national tour who stopped in New York last week, Wilkins, a Sidwell Friends student and the daughter of noted writer and professor Roger Wilkins, said she could nevertheless understand the Orthodox ritual’s traditional significance. “If that was the way I was brought up, it would definitely seem logical. The more I learn about Judaism, different aspects of it seem more logical and reassuring.”
The wig salon was one example of culture shock experienced by participants of Operation Understanding during their tour of one of New York’s most fervently Orthodox communities.
In visits to a toy store, a music emporium and other businesses on 13th Avenue, the teens who were learning the merits of cooperation and unity were taken aback by the extent of voluntary isolation around them.
“This is an X-rated video,” joked Simcha Felder, holding up a copy of the PG-rated comedy “Dunston Checks In,” about the adventures of a chimp. At Linick’s toy store, which has a selection of videos for sale and rental, all of the tapes are family friendly, rated G or PG. “Dunston” is about as risque as you get in Borough Park, explained Felder, who is chief of staff to Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and who accompanied the youths on their 13th Avenue foray Thursday.
Next door, at Mostly Music, there was no sign of N’Sync or the Backstreet Boys. But “Black Hattitude” prompted one curious purchase, and an eagle-eyed shopper spotted one familiar face on a CD cover: that of Barbra Streisand, whose rendition of “Avinu Malkenu” earned her a place on the rack.
As a dangling monitor blared an Uncle Moishy video, Marcus Davis wanted to know if the star, with his oversized top hat emblazoned with the Hebrew letter mem was “respected in the community.”
“It’s kind of scary actually,” said Davis, “They can’t see the outside world. It seems like a very sheltered community. It kind of makes you wonder what they see when visitors come in.”
Now in its seventh year, Operation Understanding recruits students from Washington area schools, synagogues and churches with the intention of perpetuating the black-Jewish cooperation seen during the civil rights era, explained executive director Christian Dorsey. “We select a group of kids who we know are going to be committed to making a change in the community,” he said. “There are no grade point averages, no essays, nothing like that. We just want to talk with a really committed group of kids who have that spark of leadership potential.” The organization’s $200,000 budget is funded by private foundations and individual contributions.
In addition to the summer tour, Operation Understanding also hosts lecture programs and workshops on the Holocaust and American slavery. “We learn about discrimination, not only against Jews and blacks but against other groups,” said Dorsey.
Brianna Nichols, a Jewish 17-year-old from Arlington, Va., said her discussions with the other group members had made her more aware of such phenomena as racial profiling.
“That’s something that as a white, Jewish girl I could never experience,” she said. “I guess I came into the group not realizing how many prejudices I haven’t seen but still really exist.”
While in New York, the students visited both the Museum of Jewish Heritage-Living Memorial to the Holocaust and a burial ground for African slaves in Manhattan on the same day. “It showed that both blacks and Jews have pain in our past and in our present,” said Adam Rosenblatt, 18, a graduate of the Field School in Washington. “We were walking on a place where they found about 500 slave bodies. It really impacted me.” The only observant Jew among the youths, Rosenblatt said he became closer to Jewish ritual after a recent United Synagogue Youth tour of Israel and former Nazi death camps in Poland. As a result, he said he often briefed his colleagues about Jewish traditions.
“It’s really cool,” he said. “I’ve gotten the explanation of my yarmulke and tzitzit down pat.”
From New York, they headed into the Deep South to visit black and Jewish communities there. But the tour of Borough Park is likely to leave a lasting impression.
“There is no other community like this,” said Hikind, meeting with the teens in his office and fielding questions. “Every single chasidic group that was transplanted from Europe prior to the Holocaust is represented here. There are so many schools and so many centers of power because everyone has their own thing.”
Hikind stressed the issue of police brutality as an issue that united blacks and Jews. He said he would bring the families of recent victims such as Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond to Borough Park on Aug. 30 to commemorate the anniversary of the police shooting of a Jewish man, Gideon Busch, in an incident now under federal review.
The group toured synagogues and stores, ate kosher pizza and falafel and witnessed the creation of a Torah scroll at the workshop of a sofer, or scribe. The encouragement by their guides to ask any questions, even sensitive ones, led to some frank exchanges.
“I don’t really agree with how he raises his child,” said Shanon Gopaul, 18, after hearing Felder describe his 12-year-old son’s education at an all-boys yeshiva. “When you raise somebody in the environment where they don’t interact with other cultures, other races, other religions, I think that when they do [meet someone] they sometimes have negative feelings toward the other group.”
Added Gopaul, a graduate of the Potomac School in Maryland and an immigrant from Trinidad: “If his child chooses to remain here for the rest of his life, that defeats the purpose of groups like this that are out there to try to sort of rebuild that bond between Jews and blacks. They aren’t interacting.”
But Davis said he saw some benefit to the Borough Park lifestyle that made him almost envious. “I’ve been active in the black community where I live in D.C.,” he said. “We are all living in the community together, but we don’t feel like we’re in it together. You don’t have the kind of co-isolation that brings people together. I like that feeling.”