Finding common ground in separate traumas
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Finding common ground in separate traumas

Teaneck memorials present Black and Jewish teens discussing slavery and the Holocaust

Two educators and seven teens: a scene from the panel discussion.
Two educators and seven teens: a scene from the panel discussion.

Most of Teaneck’s Orthodox Jewish teens attend private yeshivas. Most of the town’s Black teens attend the public school. Members of the two groups seldom have a chance to meet each other.

But last week, a Zoom panel offered an opportunity to hear Black teens talk about what they’ve learned about the Holocaust — and yeshiva students discuss what they’ve learned about American chattel slavery and racism.

The panel was presented by two group who are trying to raise funds to establish adjacent monuments to their people’s tragic pasts on the green in front of Teaneck’s town hall. The groups — the Enslaved African Memorial Committee and the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial and Education Committee — are committed to working together on joint community educational projects; this was their first such event since before the pandemic but its organizers promise more soon.

“A Call to Action: Transforming How We Understand the Legacies of Chattel Slavery and the Holocaust” featured five adults and seven teens.

The adults were Candace Pinn, president of the Westchester Alliance of Black School Educators and an educational consultant for the Enslaved African Memorial Committee; Dr. Dennis Klein, director of Kean University’s program in Holocaust and genocide studies; Dr. Jack Tchen, a professor of public history and humanities at Rutgers University; Tikvah Wiener, head of school at the Idea School in Tenafly; and Zainabu Conteh, a teacher at Teaneck’s Benjamin Franklin Middle School.

The teens were Sarah Gorbatov and Yehuda Zinberg from the Idea School; Sophia McCullough and William Isaiah Lee from the Benjamin Franklin Middle School; and Kasai Sanchez, Leah Kinloch, and Candace Guthrie from Teaneck High.

Candace Guthrie said that while she had been taught about slavery, she never “really understood the true horrors of it until I as a bit older and able to do independent research on my own. It was extremely eye opening for me.”

She said her first lesson on the Holocaust came in her seventh grade language arts class, which “took us very in depth with the events that occurred throughout the Holocaust. We learned about the severity of life in the concentration camps. We also read the ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ and we watched some movies on the topic.”

She said that “learning about slavery truly aided in the understanding of myself, because my own ancestors were enslaved. I’m always mindful of the way in which I carry myself because I know that my ancestors only dreamed of being able to dance, educate, and express themselves freely, without fear of persecution. And I am and I continue to be motivated by the resilience and strength that my ancestors showed during those harsh times.”

Sarah Gorbatov spoke about a course she took at the Idea School called “Allied Against Hate,” in which she learned “about the joint and divergent histories of the black and Jewish communities, focusing specifically on the similarities and differences between antisemitism and anti-black racism. We began that semester quite expansively by taking a look at the concept of empathy, as explained by researcher Brené Brown, and then we zoomed in on Black and Jewish history with an empathetic mindset. We learned about the Nuremberg race laws that discriminate against Jews on a genetic ethnic basis during the Holocaust, and how those discriminatory laws were actually inspired by the segregation in the Jim Crow South.”

Yehuda Zinberg expanded on this point: “It’s worth mentioning that the famous one-drop rule of the South, where anyone with a single black ancestor was subject to oppression, was deemed too extreme for the Nazis” when determining who was Jewish, he said. “It was this kind of commonality of oppression that led to moments in history when the two communities united to fight injustices together.”

“When you understand these two histories, you understand the present,” Leah Kinloch said.

The students were asked what more they would like to learn on these topics. Candace Guthrie mentioned “the side effects and post-traumatic stress that these events have had on those directly impacted and how it might affect generations to come.

“Obviously, we still see a lot of remnants of these events in our society, from oppression, racism and biases, but the psychological aspects and how that trauma is passed down from generation is what really intrigues me.”

Ms. Pinn offered a personal example of how, in the chain of intergenerational trauma and family memories, the 19th century is not all that long ago.

“My grandfather lived to be 101,” she said. “He just died last year.

“I didn’t learn from him directly about some of the more difficult times until he was well into his 90s.

“And that explained everything, from his little sayings and the things that influenced my life and how I look at people and my implicit bias. It comes from his, which was formed by his parents and his grandfather. He told me a story just last year of how his grandfather had been enslaved, and how he had to rub kerosene and mothballs on his grandfather’s back, because he had rheumatoid arthritis.”

The full 90 minute recording of the panel is available on the websites of the two memorial committees. The Enslaved Africa Memorial Committee’s site is www.eamcnj.org and the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial and Education Committee is at www.teaneckyomhashoa.org.

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