- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

Black and Jewish high school students yesterday began a yearlong educational program in which they will learn about each others’ history and culture.

During the three-day retreat at the Hotel Harrington in Northwest, 32 juniors — 16 black and 16 Jewish — will learn leadership and conflict-resolution skills and receive a crash course on each others’ religions, histories and cultures.

Yesterday, the students filled a conference room for a rousing meet-and-greet session for the retreat, overseen by Operation Understanding DC.

Diandre Watkins, 16, of Northwest, said she was spurred to participated in the program by her older sister, an alumna of the program, and glowing reports from other friends who had participated.

“I’m hoping that the program will give me a better appreciation of different cultures,” the Woodrow Wilson High student said. “I expect that it will and that it’ll be fun.”

Operation Understanding DC — founded in 1993 by Kalish Communications owner Karen Kalish — was patterned after a program in Philadelphia started by former U.S. Rep. William H. Gray III, Pennsylvania Democrat.

Nearly 250 students have graduated from the organization’s cross-cultural program, which began in 1995. About 70 to 80 teens applied this year to participate, said Rachael Feldman, the program’s executive director.

The program, funded mainly by contributions from Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s son, Gerald, is free of charge and is open to all black and Jewish high school juniors in the D.C. area.

The 12-month program begins in January of the students’ junior year of high school. The students meet biweekly during the first six months for workshops, meetings, lectures and activities in which they learn about the religion, history and culture of blacks and Jews.

In the summer months, the program focuses on the civil rights movement. During that portion, the students visit places of significance throughout the country.

“We try to go way beyond tolerance with our teachings,” Miss Feldman said. “The program aims to unite young people to embrace different cultures and eradicate discrimination.”

Ethan Waxman, 17, whose older brother participated in the program, said he is mostly anticipating traveling around the country.

“I’m looking forward to learning about blacks’ historical and cultural significance and making connections with new people,” said Ethan, a junior at Sidwell Friends School. “That’s one of the things my brother took away from it. But I’m also ready to visiting parts of the country that I’ve never been to before.”

Rael Nelson James, the program director and 1996 alumna of the program, said the most valuable aspect of the program is the exposure to different ways and cultures.

“We look for kids who are motivated,” she said. “The program opens your eyes. It helps you break out of your bubble of being around the same people and helps give the perspective of others.”

The most important part of the program occurs in the fall, when the students are taught how to mediate discussions about sensitive issues and facilitate prejudice-reduction workshops at schools, community centers and places of worship, Miss Feldman said.

Though academic performance isn’t part of the selection criteria, the students must demonstrate strong leadership potential and enthusiasm for learning, Miss Feldman said.

“One of the main things the students learn from the program is that they have a voice and they need to use it,” she said.

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