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Building cross-cultural bridges in KC

HBHA and University Academy students crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of the 1965 Selma civil rights march.

Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy (HBHA), a Jewish day school in Overland Park, Kansas, and my home since kindergarten, has always emphasized the pursuit of justice. In the past few years, the effort to more closely connect HBHA high schoolers to the local and global community through social justice work enabled my classmates and me to partner with Kansas City, Missouri-based University Academy (UA) students.

Together, we have tackled issues such as voting registration, local politics and early education and childhood development. This year, along with our counterparts at UA, we took experiential learning a step further on a civil rights tour through the southern U.S.

Before embarking on our nine-day trip, HBHA and UA students studied the civil rights movement in depth. We also met three times to learn about the legacy of the civil rights movement and discuss our respective cultures and heritage. We listened to local civil rights activist Alvin Brooks’ account of the legacy of the civil rights movement in Kansas City and his own advocacy against racism and violence. We talked about present-day biases and stereotypes, and explored similarities and connections between African-American and Jewish history.

As a student at HBHA, these recurrent connections helped me to further explore my own Jewish heritage. Throughout the civil rights movement, Jews worked alongside African-Americans in a unified fight for civil rights. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent rabbi during the ’50s and ’60s, was a co-worker, adviser and close friend with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The shared histories of Jews and African-Americans were echoed in the stories of several synagogues we visited on our trip. Congregants and clergy in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee described their activism and partnership with African-American activists during the civil rights movement, often emphasizing the Jewish value of tikkun olam (literally: “repairing the world”): the responsibility to pursue justice. 

Possibly the most symbolic moment of the trip was walking through Kelly Ingram Park, the location of the ‘Children’s Crusade,’ a youth-led protest on segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, where a chestnut tree had recently been planted with a plaque commemorating Anne Frank. 

“Adolf Hitler sent agents to the United States to study the Jim Crow south,” our guide explained. “If you’re familiar enough with segregation and Jim Crow, you can hear the echoes throughout the Nuremberg laws … Housing, segregation in education and business opportunities in Nazi Germany — all those things were derived from Jim Crow laws. It is entirely fitting that this tree reminds us what the hate, that also existed in a place like Birmingham, Alabama, could grow into if left unchecked.” 

A silence fell over the group. There we were, 47 teenagers standing in a place where thousands of children had stood up against the same hatred and discrimination in Birmingham that has endlessly oppressed both Jews and African-Americans throughout history. 

The opportunity to experience both the Jewish aspects of the civil rights movement in addition to the rest of its history highlighted the importance of breaking cultural boundaries to stand up for justice in any situation. This lesson inspired the entire group and bonded us together.  

After parting with UA, HBHA students stayed in Birmingham on Saturday to observe Shabbat. On our way back to Kansas City, we stopped at The Winter Institute at the University of Mississippi. There, Jewish anti-racism advocate Jennifer Stollman talked with us about self-evaluation of biases. As the conversation deepened, a couple of my friends questioned whether a small personal change would really make a difference. “Well,” she responded, “do you think you can change the world?”

By the time we arrived at the Winter Institute, our experiences on the trip led us to understand that changing the world is possible regardless of whether you are simply advocating for change or leading an entire movement. Not only did Martin Luther King Jr. change the world, but so did Anne Frank, Alvin Brooks, Jennifer Stollman and countless others who stand up for justice. Now, with a new understanding of ongoing injustices across the globe and the incredible opportunities to try to fix them, I realize more than ever the importance and boundless impacts of taking action to pursue and advocate for justice. 

Anyone can change the world. It’s just a matter of how.

Haidee Clauer is a sophomore at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy and the opinion/editorial editor for her school’s online publication, rampagewired.com.