Inspired by recent events – from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to rising anti-Semitism around the world, and the legalization of same-sex marriage to comments of presidential candidates about various ethnic groups – the teen leaders of H2I Youth Group decided to focus their third annual Social Actions Shul-In on the topic of discrimination. In previous years, the teen leaders selected homelessness and disabilities as the theme of their evening of learning, but the choice to focus on discrimination this year seemed obvious. In the words of Raya Kazdan, a junior who helped plan the event, “As Jewish teens in the most diverse county in America, discrimination is a concept we are all familiar with. We chose to center our program around this particular issue because it is vital that all USYers are able to recognize discrimination, understand how to appropriately deal with it, and eventually put an end to it.”
After months of planning by the USYers, the Shul-In began on the evening of Saturday, October 24 with twenty eager high schoolers entering Hillcrest Jewish Center ready for a night of engaging with the challenging issue. They began by taking a quiz to assess their comfort level in various social situations dealing with race, gender, sexual orientation, weight, and age. After tallying their answers to determine the areas in which they had the most opportunity for growth, the teens headed into their first formal program of the evening. Each USYers was given a colored star, representing one particular group of people, and as they traveled through history, points of the star were ripped off as they faced acts of discrimination. After their journey ended, and African American women (represented by a pink star) were revealed to have faced the most discrimination since the founding of America, the teens discussed which group represented the pink star in society today – settling on Muslim-Americans as the group facing some of the greatest discrimination in our world post-9/11.
After a Scavenger Hunt in which groups were split by hair color, with one group receiving a far easier list, the teens participated in a Privilege Walk exercise, in which they took steps forward and backward depending on their reaction to a number of statements designed to unearth the level of discrimination (or lack thereof) they have faced thus far in their lives. It came as no surprise when three of the four males in attendance emerged at the front of the gym, the most privileged area, at the end of the exercise. Once the activity was debriefed, participants headed into their next program – “The Game of Life.” In this activity, groups discussed how they would react to a particular scenario of discrimination, with each answer leading to a different strand of the story. After making a number of choices, teens were able to see how seemingly innocent decisions – such as who to sit next to on a bus – could evolve into more overt discrimination as each decision compounded the previous. Junior Danielle Kraes was particularly moved by this program, learning that “every decision you make can have a different impact on your life and the lives of others.”
In an effort to debunk common stereotypes, the teens then engaged in a program to unearth the most common stereotypes about particular groups. On the forehead of each teen, a post-it was placed identifying the individual as the member of a particular group. Teens had to help their peers guess their group without telling them outright, leading into a discussion about the dangers of stereotypes, even if some might not seem harmful (A USY labeled Canadian, for example, guessed his group after being told he was overly nice and loved hockey).
Later in the evening, the teens explored the use of the n-word in hip-hop lyrics, and discussed whether it was ever okay for the word to be used, including by President Obama in a podcast about overcoming prejudice. After an enlightening conversation, which was guided by clips from ABC’s Blackish, the USYers took part in a “What Would You Do?” activity based on clips from Teennick’s Degrassi: The Next Generation. After viewing clips featuring discrimination—based on sexual orientation, gender identity, race, and ethnicity—teens discussed how they would react if they witnessed the situation, before critiquing the actual response of the characters on the show. Finally, programming for the evening concluded at around 1:30 AM with a look at the “Racism Alphabet,” where teens explored discrimination beginning with every letter of the alphabet—from Age to the theory of a Zionist Occupation Government.
After a night’s sleep to let the programming sink in, the teens had a productive breakfast—discussing the actions they could take to help prevent discrimination from continuing to occur. All the teens left that morning with a deeper understanding of their world. As Brianna Manginelli, a junior, remarked, “Too much of our world is filled with unnecessary hatred towards innocent individuals and groups. This weekend we chose to show our fellow USYers how much prejudice they both receive and serve, subconsciously and knowingly, with the hope of reaching their hearts to show them that, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy, ‘…a tiny ripple of hope…[can] build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance’.”