We the People

We the People

Jewish, Muslim, Catholic kids come together to benefit from each other

Students of all backgrounds join in a We the People discussion on projects to benefit the community at large.
Students of all backgrounds join in a We the People discussion on projects to benefit the community at large.

It was the hateful Snapchat message that convinced Tracy Zur that something had to be done. It was the fall of 2016, and Donald Trump has been elected president after a campaign vilifying Mexicans and Muslims.

“We’re going to send you back to your country,” the message to Ms. Zur’s friend’s child — a Teaneck-born Muslim — said.

Ms. Zur was determined to fight back against the vitriol being unleashed at the highest levels of American society, and to do her part to repair the social fabric.

Ms. Zur was no stranger to public life. In 2012, she was elected to the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders, where she continues to sit. So in January 2017, on the Martin Luther King Day four days before President Trump’s inauguration, her new group, “We the People,” brought together 85 kids — Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim — to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey office in Paramus for a day of service. “We need to have our kids see each other as people,” rather than as bigoted stereotypes, she said. “If we bring out kids together from various backgrounds and roll up their sleeves on projects that benefit the larger community, they will get to know each other.”

This year, she’s planning for 1,000 students on MLK day, some at Bergen Community College in Paramus and others in a Fort Lee elementary school.

And this month, We the People is holding its first fundraiser to help pay for the projects the kids work on, such as assembling bags with stuffed animals for children undergoing cancer treatment. (See box.)

“These are things that are needed in our community,” Ms. Zur said of the kits the kids assemble. “There really is need in Bergen County, people suffering whether from domestic violence or dealing with medical challenges. Our kids need to understand that people need our help and support. That’s what community actually means.”

The We the People service days combine the opportunity for kids to work together on a project with guided conversations to help them meet across their cultural divides.

“There’s something magical about seeing the kids work together,” Ms. Zur said. “They come in nervous when they’re separated from their friends at the outset of the program. Seeing them make new friends in the course of the day is really meaningful.”

Ora Kornbluth saw how kids from different backgrounds could turn into friends through working together on a We the People program.

Ms. Kornbluth is a councilwoman in Bergenfield. She is also the executive director of Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck. In August, she started thinking about how to mark September 11 in her school this year. “When I think of 9/11, we all remember the tragedy,” she said. “But I remember the silver lining as well of how America came together as one. I thought we should teach our kids about that aspect of 9/11.”

Yeshiva He’Atid had taken part in We the People activities on Martin Luther King Day. What if Yeshivat He’Atid were to try that model for September 11?

So Ms. Kornbluth called Ms. Zur to help make that possible.

And on September 11, students from the Catholic Transfiguration Academy in Bergenfield and from the Muslim Dar-ul-Islah Hifz Academy in Teaneck went to Yeshivat He’Atid

“We committed to learning about each other and unifying and doing some good as well,” Ms. Kornbluth said. “We really felt this was the best way to commemorate 9/11, by showing how the unity of America really did come out.”

The program began with the head of the school, Rabbi Tomer Ronen, speaking for a few minutes, followed by the mayor of Teaneck, Mohammed Hameeduddin. Then came the keynote speaker: Charlie Steinel, a retired fire captain from Union City who went to help dig out at Ground Zero on September 12, 2001.

Next, students were divided into groups and spent 20 minutes on icebreakers and learning about each other’s cultures. Then came the charitable work: Packing bags with toiletries for people in shelters, and bags with snacks and thank-you notes for first responders. Then the students painted pictures together, which were combined into murals set to hang in each of the three schools. “The feedback we got from our parents and students was amazing,” Ms. Kornbluth said. “The other schools did as well. We are going to to find ways to interact with them again. The kids were painting together, smiling together, working together. We’re planning to do another event just to keep the kids in touch with each other.”

“I’m excited by having more people be part of this engagement,” Ms. Zur said.

On October 20, We the People is having a volunteer day in conjunction with Habitats for Humanity, and planning is underway for this year’s Martin Luther King Day event.

“We’re looking for people to sign up,” Ms. Zur said. The program will bring together middle school students for the service projects, but it needs 75 high school students to serve as guides for the program.

“If you’re between 10 and 18 years old, we’re excited to have you,” she added.

Save the Date

What: We the People fundraiser

When: Thursday, October 17, 6 to 8 p.m.

Where: The Dog and Cask, 55 New Jersey 17S, Rochelle Park

For more information and to donate online: go to

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