Sunday, July 4, 2010

Today was the best day for me so far. I had the privilege of attending the Antioch baptist church in Richmond Virginia. Strangely enough, I knew exactly what I was going to expect, yet I was still affected by the experience. I knew that I would walk out of the church more or less the same way I went in. I arrived at the church and as the service began, I started to get into my mellow and observing mood. I am not a Christian but I was still keen on learning.

I enjoy being in didactic environments; environments where I am forced to start thinking.  As the reverend began his sermon my struggles began. There were many things he said that just didn’t resonate with me. There were also things that I just outright disagreed with. But as the rev began to end his sermon I witnessed many members of his congregation weeping and this had me feeling a bit humbled. Now I consider myself a Muslim because of my parents, but I don’t really practice; I follow my own philosophies. But the pastor ended his sermon with a sentiment that seemed directed right towards me. He said that, people tend to search for a “grandiose” or fantastic sighting before they believe, and that people should know that God speaks to people in different ways. Now I knew this prior to the sermon but I admit that I am a realist; I prefer concrete evidence rather than people telling me something is real. I thoroughly enjoyed the service simply because it made me think.

Ibrahim Kamara, Germantown Friends School, OU ’10


“What is your neighborhood?”

It wasn’t what I had expected, not even close, the physical thing maybe, but the thoughts it stimulated and the people I shared them with was completely unprecedented. I started realizing it at the synagogue, a place which I had never really prayed in before, merely a venue for ceremonies and bar mitzvahs, I listened to the ancient language of Jerusalem and how well the people knew its song, and I could feel myself in its old hymns, I felt a part of me that had once existed. It didn’t stop there. I looked to my friends on the other side, the ones who had never been to synagogue before, who knew nothing of the Jewish customs, and I saw them stand up when it was appropriate, or bow their heads in respect when it was needed, I saw them excitedly get out of their seats, hold hands with people they knew not, and dance elegantly around the halls as the music flowed out to them. It made me feel as though our group was more complete. It hit me again a couple of days later, we had left New York and entered the tight-knit community of a Baptist Church in Virginia. The synagogue had been much more high maintenance, our bags had been checked and people had thrown us many looks that said “outsider” as we walked in, until of course the Rabbi told them of our mission. Here was different, immediately when our bus came to the parking lot, a man wearing a warm smile came out to greet us, and told us to get situated. We proceeded into the church, which was quite modern and surprisingly small, and many came to shake our hands and bid us welcome, with some of the most sincere smiles I had ever seen. I was feeling pretty good as we sat down and then instead of just passing us in mentioning, the pastor made sure all visitors stood up and introduced themselves. This made us all feel a lot more appreciated. After some singing and an amazing sermon by the pastor, about things that people of any faith could relate to, we had breakfast and talked some more to the people. It was a good thing to see people of such different background engaged wholeheartedly in discussions about their definitions of God or levels of spirituality, some things could be very revealing and it penetrated all our surfaces, opening our minds. I think it all came together on our next stop that day, the holocaust museum in Virginia. We pulled in not knowing what to expect, I mean, who’s heard of the Virginia holocaust museum? Not me. The tour was given to us by the director’s grandson, Ben Ipson, whose Grandfather was a holocaust survivor. We began in the bunkers, and then we saw some of the torture methods Nazis used, but none cried, we were all still recovering from the bus ride, and I was angry that I had forgotten my glasses. Soon we all had to crawl down a potato whole, where we saw many disturbing things, and when we reached the other side, there was a TV screen. To this day, I still don’t know what moved everyone and myself so much about that screen. There was no groundbreaking information or discovery, it was merely pictures of Jewish children who were killed in the holocaust, they came one after another, floating by, as a voice spoke each ones names. The children were so sweet and innocent in their pictures, like any other child, and maybe it was that realization which made us cry, because nothing brought us closer to the reality of the holocaust then that instant, in which we were actually able to relate to it. So, after about 5 seconds, we all burst into tears, blacks and Jews, it didn’t matter, we were all hugging each other and weeping, and it felt cathartic. Some time later, the tour guide left his professional self, and told us we were easily his favorite group so far, no one before had responded so well and payed so much attention to him, and he was our age. It took us a while to stop crying, some longer than others, but we were all there for each other. Later we met with the director and holocaust survivor, Ipson himself, and asked him many questions which he answered very eloquently and I was surprised seeing as he came to America knowing six languages that were not English with only 25 dollars to spend. He had many interesting stories, and he was a well rounded individual, someone we could all look up to. At the end, when we had no other questions, he asked us all one? He asked, “what is your neighborhood?” We all tried to answer but we couldn’t tell if he meant our city or our community, and then he told us, our neighborhood is the world, and as the leaders of tomorrow, we have to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

Nicolas Sessler, J.R. Masterman HS, OU 2010

We boarded the bus

On July 29th, 16 teens boarded a bus

All of them were strangers who had been put together to fulfill a common goal and learn from each other.  They all had their excitement along with their doubts.  The same question was going though all of their minds “Can I ever form a bond as strong as OU 09′ with these people that sit before me?”

Days passed and through experiencing things outside their normal routine, these teens began to open up to each other.

On July 4th 16 teens walked into a museum

All of them less ignorant of who each member was.

They all were full of anticipation along with curiosity.

The same question ran through all of their minds “Can I make it through this Holocaust Museum without breaking down in front of people who had never seen me cry?”

This question was answered quickly as these teens walked past the walls covered in pictures of genocide

One began to cry.

Soon another joined in..and then another..and then another. Soon all of the Jewish teens along with a group leader were in tears.

One would think that these individuals who knew each other just under a week would not have a shoulder to lean on yet, but that wasn’t the case.

Each individual shedding tears was soon engulfed by hugs of compassion by every member of the group.

Even the members of the group who were not Jewish felt the pain of their group members who were and took it into their hands to comfort them.

In that moment the group was no longer strangers, but family.

In that moment of weakness, the OU group of 2010 came together in ways beyond anything they could ever image.

On July 21st 16 teens will walk into a church to be welcomed back by their families

All of them happy to be home but sad to be leaving the family they had created through their 3 weeks of travel

They will all be filled with new knowledge of equality along with a love for their group members that will last a life time.

The same question with be running through all of their minds “Now that this trip is over, how can I change the world?”

In time that question will be answered as we all make our mark on the world through the help of Operation Understanding.

I am proud to be a member of the OU class of 2010. We are a group of unique, amazing people who truly want to make a difference through all the experiences we have on this trip. In the past week we have gone from strangers to friends and I hope that in the next 2 weeks of this trip that our bond becomes stronger.

A quick shout out to my family back home. I love you guys and miss you!

-Brooke Singer, Central High School, OU 2010


I’m going to be honest. As our OU journey began, I hated poetry. So much. It frankly did not make sense to me that one would take the time to rearrange their thoughts, which could easily be expressed in a simple paragraph, in a planned format of rhythm, rhyme and meter. It seemed like a literary travesty in a sense, a sequence of words that reeked of ingenuity and a false sense of creativity. I soon learned, however, that poetry could and would indeed become the means for me to express my feelings and thoughts during my OU experience fluidly and with a definite sense of integrity and passion.

It all started when, on Day 1 at Temple University, my 15 OU family members and I met Kammika Williams-Witherspoon, a renowned poet, playwright, actress, and professor. The topic of her lecture was Telling Your Story: Journaling for Real. At this point, I was dreading knowing I would have to write in a journal. I had thought that my thoughts were best expressed vocally, as I can be rather extroverted when sharing my feelings. Yet, Mrs. Williams-Witherspoon taught me the value of keeping a journal and using writing as a means of expression. She recounted her past journal entries as a cultural anthropologist. I could see the passion and intensity secrete from her heart and skin and into my ears. She shared poems, songs, and even succinct aphorisms that she had picked up when journeying all over the world.

Then, she asked us to make our first journal entry. I was feeling cynical. I sat and looked around the room. Everyone has started writing. My thirst was unbearable, and I began to think about the not so sweet grapes I had eaten ten minutes prior at the workshop. I wrote:

Thirst ran through veins of anxiousness

I sought to quench desire and thirst

As all I saw were green grapes

Glaring at me in a bowl, connected by roots and vines

Like my thoughts, my worries, my desires

As they entered my mouth, I was disappointed

Not quite sweet, not quite sour

Not too soft nor too hard, nor juicy nor dry

Average grapes

Sometimes I must settle for mediocrity

Yet my curiosity will never keep me from trying the grapes in life

Or in Operation Understanding

This felt right. It flowed, it spoke to me. I had found the way to express myself: poetry.

On Day 3, we travelled to Word Up NYC, a poetry-slam type of place that teaches about self expression and caters to the adolescents of New York. We first heard a poem from a student, Kamone, who spoke with such intensity about being black and Jewish, and having slavery and the Shoah intertwined in her heart. This spoke to me, as an OU member, and as a citizen of the world. We then took a brief workshop by MC K-Swift, highlighting the way to not only write poetry, but and also its delivery. He gave us a task: if we could say one thing to the whole world, what would it be? I wrote:


It is universal, collective, ubiquitous, linking

We are different, but we are the same

Because the one thing that binds us is


It is passion, excitement, adventure

We strive to be individuals, yet in this we all do the same

Because the one thing that links us is


It is hatred, bigotry, discrimination

It is the good and bad, the pretty and ugly

Because the one thing that breaks us is


It is laughter, it is sobbing, optimism and pessimism

We work to live and live to work

Because the one thing that makes us is


It is what’s different that makes us the same.

I am proud to say that over the past week, I have written over twenty poems about what we have experienced. I believe I have a new calling, a new form of expressing myself. I no longer dread poetry. I embrace it. Just as I embrace Operation Understanding.

Jordan Konell, Central High, OU 2010

New York: A Constantly Changing City

Walking down the busy streets of New York, the one thing most apparent is change. We saw old synagogues, now brand new churches. We walked through a four year old Jewish medical school built inside the old department store where Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed. We saw new luxury condos being built inside old tenements in neighborhoods that people used to never consider spending so much money to live there. We walked around Harlem and saw a mix of fantastic history and new developments. We went to the Apollo Amateur Night where we saw rising stars sing on the same stage as legends had years ago. We sat in a Crown Heights youth center, learning about a rough past while sitting in a place that works on peaceful change everyday. We toured the financial district and learned how what was once an African burial ground is now Thurgood Marshall Court House. As we learned about change, we changed as well, learning more about each other and becoming closer as  we started the first leg of our journey. It is only the beginning, and I know there is much more change to come. To the South!

Michele Ozer, J.R. Masterman High School, OU 2010

Strategic White Water Rafting

Written by Langston Varnadore, Masterman High School (OU 2009)

Today we went “white water” rafting on the Chattahoochee River. We were under the impression that it would be some sort of white water, but it turned out to be a slow moving river that was loaded with seaweed. We split up into two groups and got onto separate rafts. Due to the competitive nature of everyone in each group, we decided that it would be a head-to-head raft race. The other team got off to a fairly good start, but our team had cohesive personalities which kept conflict to a minimum. The personality of your raft mates was the most important part of the excursion because that turned out to be the most important difference between the groups. My group had a lot of cool, calm, and collected personalities; including myself. The other group had all the louder, more opinionated, and uber competitive people. Due to their constant power struggle they ended up losing. During one point when my team had a massive lead we were discovered by a duck that just started to follow us. The duck was really cute so we named him Henry. He would circle our boat while we were going really slowly. Once the other boat caught up to us he betrayed our friendship and went to the dark side.
Due to our strenuous pace and the obscene length of the trip (4:30 hours), we docked on a mini beach with some other people and took a breather. After we got our strength back my team pulled it all together and went hard for the finish and secured a last minute win!!!!! Oh the feel of sweet success!!!

Written by Dan Laurence, Central High School (OU 2009)

As my friend Langston mentioned, our team dominated the rowing race. But I’d like to detail that “breather” we took. We swam across from the mini beach, fighting the river, towards a precipice roughly eight meters high or so. There were only four of us, however, because mostly everyone stayed back and rested. Firstly Tali jumped, followed just seconds later by Chelsea. Craig, who has a fear of heights hesitated for a moment. The gentlemen next to us gave him encouraging words and eventually he braved the fall. Finally, it was my turn. Generally I’m fine with heights, but waiting five minutes almost thirty feet in the air starts to get in to one’s head. I decided to finally jump, and spent more time flying through the air than a pastor spends in church, or so it seemed. When I got to the bottom Craig informed me his injured knee combined with cold locked joints and regular exhaustion prevented him from having the energy to fight the river to get back. So I swam the roughly seventy to ninety feet back to the other side, got a life jacket and swam back and gave it to him, our friend Amanda decided to join me for the swim. It proved not to be enough, his exhaustion seemed to outweigh the capacity of the float, and so Amanda and I hollered to the people nearest us with legitimate floats. They responded immediately. Amanda, one of the two gentlemen and I dragged Craig and the second gentlemen back to the mini beach side of the river. I then noticed it was the two gentlemen who offered encouraging words on the cliff. Exhausted we thanked them over and over again. The help and kindness of the Alabamians was invaluable, and seemed to support our OU mission. Two southern gentlemen helped a Black and a Jew firstly with words and then with life saving action, without thinking twice. This seems to be evidence of sure advancement as far as racial equality goes. This world may not be perfect, but it seems to definitely be heading in the right direction.

Southern Hospitality

Written by Tali Fish, Central High School (OU 2009)

When I first found out the OU trip was going to be domestic, I was a little disappointed. I was excited to have the opportunity to learn about the African American culture and more about my own culture; however the thought of travelling within the US had much less appeal. Although I had never been to any Southern state, (well…except for Florida) I found myself thinking, How different could it be?
I have since then changed my opinions drastically. Yes, we are travelling by a bus instead of a plane, but the culture down South is completely unlike the culture I am used to in Philadelphia. For me, Southern culture can be largely split into two categories: the food and the hospitality. Every restaurant we go to, each group member is allowed to order a meat and two sides (better known in the South as ‘a meat and two’). Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, yams, mac and cheese…in the South every meal feels like Thanksgiving! But what makes my experiences in the South the most enjoyable is the hospitality given to our group everywhere we go. Each person we meet greets us with a warm smile and seems genuinely interested to learn more about our program and the OU mission.
The best example of Southern hospitality I can think of took place in Atlanta at Mary Mac’s Tea House. We were eating our dinner alongside members from the American Jewish Committee’s Black-Jewish Coalition and they were allowing us to ask them any question we had about life in the South. In the middle our discussion, a Southern lady who appeared to be in her 60’s came into the room we were sitting in and started giving a boy on our trip a very platonic backrub. She introduced herself as Jo and talked with the best Southern accent I had ever heard. For the next 10 minutes Jo spoke to us with such pride for the city she grew up in, passed out her business card, and I can honestly say she was one of the friendliest people I’ve met. As we were leaving to get dessert at the Krispey Kream store…we all received the Southern “Yall come back now!” I think I speak for each group member when I say that hospitality we encountered heightened our excitement to travel even further South. And so far we have not been disappointed!

Visiting the National Holocaust Museum in DC, Black and Jewish Perspectives.

Written by Chelsea Pasahow, Friends Central High School (OU 2009)

Today the Operation Understanding group went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It was a very emotional experience for both the African-American and Jewish OU’ers. Both groups understood and both were able to relate to the extermination that occurred during the Hitler Reich. Although the African-American participant’s ancestors were not a huge target during World War II, they were still able to understand the devastation that the Jews went through because of the oppression their ancestors faced during the times of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Because of this, the two groups were able to see eye to eye and both experience the same types of emotions.

While looking at a video of the different tactics used for the liberation of various camps, I began to cry because of the dehumanizing tactics used to bury the dead prisoners. Countries such as Russia, Britain, and the United States had to bury the dead as quick as they could in order to stop further progression of deadly diseases such as Typhus. While I watched tractors shovel numerous sick and skinny dead bodies into ditches, Angie, an African-American participant grabbed me by the back and helped to comfort me because she was able to recognize the sadness in my eyes. We both held each other and wiped away each other’s tears as we both witnessed the atrocities. That day I realized that we both had differences but we are all human and both share the same want of justice for all.

Written by Anjerie Yohn, George Washington High School (OU 2009)

Going through the museum, I felt a range of emotions. From sadness to disgust and from anger to awe, I learned a lot of new things today. Although I am not a Jewish, I felt great sympathy for the Jews and the hatred that was directed towards them. Looking through the exhibit I found many similarities between the mistreatment of Jews and African-Americans, whether it be the political cartoons depicting us as animals and savages, to the segregated signs and benches. Towards the end, there were several videos on the liberation of the concentration camps. I soon found myself next to Chelsea, a Jewish participant, and saw her tears. Knowing that we both were experiencing the same emotions I placed my hand on her back and comforted her, as we both watched the shocking images dance across the screen. At face value Chelsea and I appear very different, but at that moment we were one and the same. We were both human, and could recognize evil for it was. No matter what differences we appear to have, at heart we are all the same. I realized today that we should focus on these similarities, not highlight the differences, to create change in the world.

A Day with Professor Nurnberg and Congressman Filner

Written by: Charnee Supplee, Academy of Notre Dame (OU 2009)

OU 2009 at the Capital

OU 2009 at the Capital

After arriving in Washington, DC, we met with Professor Nurnberg from Georgetown University. He is an expert in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and shared many pertinent facts about the current state of the conflict. We asked him a variety of questions regarding the issue. The concerns of the group ranged from Palestinian representation in AIPAC to his personal opinion on the matter. The entire group became immediately engaged in a discussion about the best way for the Congress to handle the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Most of us were left overwhelmed by the plethora of complications that keep the two warring states from reaching a peaceful solution.

Afterwards we met with Congressman Filner, who represents a district in San Diego, CA. We sat in awe as he told us of his history as a freedom rider. We were amazed that he put his life in danger by riding through the south, dedicated to the cause of integration. This led to our passionate discussion that same night. Everyone in the group spoke about an issue in our society that s/he is passionate about. We spoke of how we can contribute to solving those major world issues most important to us. We left the meeting with a sense of empowerment and motivation to be active citizens of America.