Teen Group Builds Stronger Community Relations

Elizabet Shvets, 17, and Neslihan Kalayci, 18, are in complete agreement about what united teens in Young Peace Builders, a group for Jewish-American and Muslim-Turkish-American high school students in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn:

Teens from Young Peace Builders drink coffee at the Turkish Cultural Center in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Kings Bay YM-YWHA Teens from Young Peace Builders drink coffee at the Turkish Cultural Center in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Kings Bay YM-YWHA

A trip to Washington, D.C. this past year.

“We were together for a couple of days,” Neslihan explains.

“Sharing a room and entire days brought us together,” Elizabet adds.

The Young Peace Builders, which started in the fall of 2010 with the help of a mini-grant for community relations from UJA-Federation of New York, creates a bridge between the Jewish community and the Turkish-American community in South Brooklyn.

It brings together 10 teens, many from Russian-speaking families, who are active with the Kings Bay YM-YWHA, a network agency of UJA-Federation, and 10 teens from the Turkish Cultural Center of Brooklyn. The group offered workshops to help participants learn about each other’s culture, holidays, and families’ immigration experiences. Teens also attended educational sessions about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and made a three-day visit to Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to participate because it’s an innovative program, which allowed me to learn more about the beautiful culture of the Turkish people,” says Elizabet.

Neslihan expresses a similar attitude. “America is a salad bowl, where we learn about our own culture, but it’s good to learn about other cultures as well,” she says. “Each group has its own background, and we’re able to learn from each other.”

The teens are not only learning from each other, but also creating an important link between the two communities, notes Neil Steinberg, chair of UJA-Federation’s Community Connections task force that fosters intergroup relations in the New York area. The task force includes young adults from UJA-Federation’s Emerging Leaders & Philanthropists who are seeing firsthand how they can make an impact on New York City by researching and allocating funds.

“We saw that our grant was able to transform dialogue into tangible, bridge-building programming,” Steinberg says. “These two groups have created a model that hopefully similar populations living side-by-side can emulate.”

Stepping-Stones to Stronger Community Relations

During the visit to Washington, D.C., icebreakers like trying to burst balloons or checking in with a partner about what she liked and disliked about the day, helped the teens get to know one another on a personal level.

“We just had fun together,” Neslihan says. “And you learn more about each other when you’re having fun.”

The trip also provided teens with deeper insights into each other’s identities.

For Elizabet, the three days in DC allowed her to gain a fuller appreciation of Muslim daily prayers.

“Speaking to the Turkish teens, I realized they prayed five times a day, yet that’s not a hands-on understanding,” Elizabet says. “But rooming together, I saw what that meant. I learned how committed they were. We scheduled activities so there was time to break and allow time to pray.”

D.C. was also a first for Neslihan in two important ways. “I visited a synagogue for the first time, and the Holocaust Museum made a big impact,” she says. “I knew about the Holocaust, but seeing the evidence of it through all of the pictures and exhibits made me empathize more with the Jewish people.”

Elizabet and Neslihan were part of the first group of teens to participate in Young Peace Builders. A second cohort also has started this fall and is continuing the link between the two communities.

“The group helps you learn to respect other people and takes stereotypes away,” Neslihan says. Although she is now in college, she remains in touch with the group when she can. “We’re closer now because of Washington. I try to stay in contact.”

The teens see Young Peace Builders as a stepping-stone to strengthening relationships between Turkish-Americans and Jewish-Americans.

“Not that many groups out there are doing the work we’re doing,” Elizabet says. “Some people say, ‘I’m only one person, how can I help?’ But this is how it starts. We’re using ourselves as examples to show that Jewish and Turkish communities can be at peace together.”

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