BZBI Leads Teen Racial Justice Group

Sabrina Rubin Erdely with her daughter, Sylvia Erdely | Courtesy of Sabrina Rubin Erdely

After protests against police brutality and systemic racism rocked Philadelphia, Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel created the Philly Jewish Teen Racial Justice Action Group to help teens learn more about race. 

“It just felt like a good opportunity to offer them a way to come together and think about what it is to get more directly involved with different kinds of activism, and organize specifically around Black Lives Matter and a whole conversation around police brutality and racism in our country,” said Rachel Beck, teen program coordinator at BZBI.

The group meets on Zoom once a week for 2½ hours, and there are seven sessions scheduled.

The first sessions focused on providing teens with resources to help them think critically about definitions of racism and anti-Semitism provided by prominent Black writers and the Anti-Defamation League.

The education model is more informal than a typical classroom and heavily based in discussion. Participants have small group meetings in Zoom breakout rooms before convening as a larger group to share what they learn.

“We focus a lot on engaging with the teens instead of just lecturing at them,” said Adina Goldstein, an English language arts and social studies teacher at Vare-Washington Elementary School. 

Goldstein helped plan the curriculum and will co-facilitate a session on racism and anti-Semitism with Beck.

“Racism and anti-Semitism aren’t exactly the same, but they are related, and white supremacy and white nationalism is what brings them together,” she said. “The goal is an understanding of racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy from a systemic perspective.”

She plans to encourage the students to think about how they are powerful and have the ability to create change.

“It’s something that for me I’ve been thinking about a lot in the wake of George Floyd’s death,” she said. “I am Chinese American, but I strongly identify with being Jewish, and more of my circles are Jewish than Chinese. So I can try to engage in conversation with the (white Jewish) folks in my life.”

The program has attracted participants who want to learn more about civil rights and racial justice after witnessing the recent nationwide uprising.

“Black Lives Matter protests made a really big impact on us,” said Sabrina Rubin Erdely, whose daughter Sylvia Erdely is enrolled. “It really got us thinking about how we could be a part of the solution to systemic racism, and it really starts with becoming more aware.”

Her daughter already had a strong interest in feminism and environmental issues.

“During the protests she and I talked a lot about issues of race and civil rights history, and this just seemed like a next natural step for her,” she said. 

Sylvia Erdely was excited to join because she wanted to learn more about racial justice activism.

“I feel like I did not know a lot about systemic racism, and I didn’t know a lot about things like that,” she said.

She enjoyed spending the past few group sessions reading and discussing Black Lives Matter’s 2020 objectives with her peers.

Beck believes teenagers are enthusiastic to learn about civil rights because they have a clear sense of justice. 

“Part of why I work with teenagers is because young people are really smart, and young people do know what’s going on in the world,” she said.

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