As MLK Day approaches, we caught up with two young adults working on longterm projects aimed at improving literacy and nutrition in low-income African-African communities in West Philly and Camden.
Stephanie Bello and other volunteers have spent hours picking through piles of books at a West Philadelphia public elementary school’s defunct library, pulling out those in poor condition or filled with outdated content.
They found texts referring to Yugoslavia, which doesn’t exist anymore, and Pluto, which used to be considered a planet but the status of which is now up for debate. There was even a book from the Jim Crow era that tried to make connections between skin color and intelligence.
Volunteers plan to have all of these books and others cleared out by the end of this month so staff can reopen the Andrew Hamilton School library, which has been closed for four years and underresourced for more than a decade.
As part of her fellowship with Repair the World: Philadelphia, a Jewish service-learning organization, Bello, 22, will enlist others in the Jewish community to help clean out the old texts, catalogue donated books and create bookmarks and decorations for the library. Much of that will take place on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Jan. 19 at events in Center City and West Philadelphia.
“My favorite MLK quote is, ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” ’ ” said Bello, an Elmer, N.J., native who moved to Philadelphia to participate in the fellowship. “I think that definitely applies” to this project.
For many Jewish groups, MLK Day has become an annual time for community service and/or to connect with the African-American community. But this year, leaders say, in the aftermath of the deaths of black males in police altercations around the country, there is greater urgency behind their usual interfaith services and community service projects to help low-income communities.
“It’s very different this year,” said Eli Freedman, an associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform temple on North Broad Street that for years has been holding Shabbat services and a joint Habitat for Humanity project in conjunction with Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church over MLK weekend. Organizers “were talking and saying, ‘We can’t just suddenly show up and have this service together this year and act like everything is great, we love each other and all that, with everything going on in the world right now.”
While they’re hosting the same activities they’ve done for the past several years, Freedman said, he and other leaders decided to make a concerted effort to engage participants in difficult discussions about race relations.
Other local MLK-related events include a concert marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march organized by Darkaynu, a Jewish prayer group, and Temple Beth El, an African-American synagogue; an MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment march, which includes religious and secular groups; and a panel discussion being organized by the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, focusing on how Philadelphia police are trained. It will include law enforcement officials, representatives of the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, public defenders and educators.
Jewish organizers of some MLK Day events emphasized that they are trying to make sure that their efforts are not just one-off endeavors, but the start or continuation of creating long-term change.
The event inviting Jewish families to make bookmarks and decorations for the school library, for example, was intended to “inspire parents to get their children to start to volunteer at a young age and to see why it’s important to give back to their community,” said Bello, who is working with West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, known as WePAC, the organization behind the efforts to reopen the library. The children will “be able to know that their work is going directly to help other children their age.”
If the library at Andrew Hamilton opens as planned, it will be the exception, not the rule in the School District of Philadelphia. Only 7 percent of Philadelphia public schools had a librarian on staff during the 2013-14 school year. All the funding for those positions came from private donors and nonprofits, according to WePAC.
The organization has opened 17 libraries since 2009, five of which have since closed or been taken over by charter schools. Each of those libraries is staffed by volunteers and costs about $20,000 to operate annually, said Sarah Joseph, WePAC library program manager.
Joseph noted that her organization is focusing on early literacy, aiming to have students read at grade level by the fourth grade — which is not common in Philadelphia schools — with the idea that they will then be able to better understand textbooks later.
There is also the goal of building a love of books, which is why volunteers are weeding out the beat-up volumes and bringing in new ones, said Bello.
“I was really into animals when I was younger. This was before the Internet, and I loved that I was able to go to the library, check out a book, return it the next week, get a new book and learn something else,” Bello said. Now as part of the fellowship, she gets “to read to the children, and I see the excitement they can get over a new book.”
In the same way that Bello is trying to boost literacy in West Philadelphia, Jonathan Wetstein is trying to inspire community gardening in Camden, N.J.
On a Friday afternoon, he sat at Donkey’s Place, a bar next to Parkside Learning Garden, where he has been working for three years, sipping its famous birch beer as he ate a sandwich on a kaiser roll.
“It’s great to have neighbors like Mr. Lucas,” Wetstein said of Robert Lucas, Donkey’s owner.
Aside from the personal connections, Wetstein also appears to have some of the other roots needed for a young venture. He has received $60,000 in funding — part of which has gone toward a stipend — from the Parkside Business and Community in Partnership, a nonprofit organization that is developing a $9.5 million office and retail building near the garden.
This year, Wetstein, 32, is also participating in the Tribe 12 Fellowship, a Jewish incubator for socially conscious startup ventures.
In recent years, multiple community development groups in Camden have aimed to spur interest in urban gardening by starting dozens of plots throughout the impoverished city and providing supplies to individual gardeners.
Wetstein’s interest in urban agriculture started in graduate school at Penn State when he realized that many cities have a lot of open land and “a young, low-income population where the opportunity to make $20,000 to $30,000 by selling produce to neighboring restaurants and businesses would make a huge impact on households.”
Once you “get people gardening for whatever their incentive is, whether it’s for health, for money, for social activities, once you provide that groundwork and they can start to grow and dig with their hands, they are naturally going to have an interest and a demand for healthy produce,” Wetstein explained on a tour of the neighborhood.
He said he hopes his Parkside garden will become a place to host workshops on topics such as for-profit farming so that residents can learn how to grow produce in their own backyards and then sell their bounty.
Next door, Lucas has left a patch of white paint from the kosher butcher shop that once neighbored his family’s restaurant and childhood home.
“This is where they did their slaughtering,” said Lucas, 75. “I heard roosters every morning crowing ’cause they always had loose birds around."
Decades ago, Lucas said, the gates in Parkside would be shut on Fridays before sundown to ensure that people wouldn’t drive through the then-Jewish neighborhood. But the Jewish residents moved out to suburbs like Cherry Hill and Voorhees after business at the city’s port slowed in the 1960s and a race riot roiled the city in 1971.
The gates are now just ornamentation. The buildings that once housed synagogues are vacant or have been repurposed; one, for example, is a Boys and Girls Club.
Wetstein, who lives in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of Philadelphia, has worked hard to integrate himself into the community and faced some of the usual hurdles for a white person in a largely black community. He cited as an example being pulled over when he had a black person in his car, presumably because police are on high alert for those who appear to be driving into the city for drugs or prostitution.
But the residents of Parkside have gotten to know him as he’s gone door-to-door seeking gardening volunteers who will then also walk door-to-door to enlist other gardeners.
On a recent Friday afternoon, he stopped by to say hello to Deborah McGee, 60, whom Wetstein calls the “chief recruiter” for the garden.
She already had been growing tomatoes, corn, cabbage and other vegetables before the two met a couple years ago. She and her husband, Tyrone McGee, talked about how they have found neighbors picking tomatoes and peppers in their garden. When the McGees asked what they were doing, they said, “We’re having spaghetti tonight.”
The couple smiled as they recounted this and other stories from their couch, where Deborah McGee had been reading a book on gardening.
A lot of the corner store vegetables “are on their last leg, and in this area you have a lot of seniors, a lot of older people that are sick, and it’s easier to go to your own garden and pick your own vegetables, and it saves them money in their pocket,” McGee said.
Wetstein’s garden isn’t the only recent Jewish-led revitalization effort in Camden. About a decade ago, Nancy Axelrod, a Haddonfield resident, started the Jewish Camden Partnership to assist local organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. But funding dried up during the Great Recession, and the organization closed in 2009.
Still, she said, the suburban Jewish community has remained engaged: An annual Community Mitzvah Day in October organized by the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey brings hundreds of people from the suburbs back to Camden, and a number of Jews volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club that occupies the former synagogue.
Axelrod said a rabbi at M’Kor Shalom, a Reform congregation in Cherry Hill, once told her that “anywhere where there has been a Torah is sacred land, so Camden is sacred land.”
The idea that inspired her nonprofit was a Jewish one and, in her estimation, so is Wetstein’s.
Teaching residents how to grow their own food “works at the highest levels of Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah,” she said, “which is helping people to help themselves.”