Teens representing the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center met at the Senator John Heinz History Center last week for the start of a collaborative cultural exploration. The Connecting Communities program will inform teens in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and teens from the Hill District of “their unique and overlapping histories,” while generating “meaningful dialogue,” explained Carolyn Gerecht, the JCC’s director of teen engagement and experiences.
The first session facilitated participant discussion through introductory activities.
Whether playing name games or inquiring as to personal interests, “those icebreaker games showed the group that there were similarities — who plays basketball, who skateboards, who’s on Snapchat. Even though they look different, there was this connection,” explained Kim El, Grayson’s program coordinator.
What followed was a realization of communal history.
Facilitators displayed photographs of Hill District buildings, but when teens were asked to identify the structures, their eyes opened.
“Many buildings have gone back and forth between the communities,” said Gerecht. “The Irene Kaufmann Settlement is now home to the Hill House; the Blakely Center used to be the Hebrew Institute, which is the organization that predated the JEI.”
Such realization of shared space was surprising for some, said El. “The kids didn’t think there was a Jewish connection in the Hill.”
During a talkback session at the evening’s end, one student remarked that she walked past a particular building “every day and never noticed” the Hebrew words engraved high up in the concrete. The building had at one point been a synagogue.
“Part of the reason for getting these teens together is to explore the history together,” said Gerecht. “The neighborhood has been through a lot of waves of really fascinating history.”
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of Pittsburgh’s Jews lived in the Hill District. In the 1920s, much of the community relocated to Squirrel Hill.
But probing the past isn’t the program’s only purpose. Gerecht wants to bring the teens “together and talk about their experiences: How do we share space? How do we protect community assets? How are our identities formed? What’s the relationship been between these communities?”
That last question garnered particular attention during the opening session.
After teens observed a 1920 photograph of “African-American kids and white kids all on a jungle gym,” and then a subsequent picture from the same era of the two groups shopping together in a store, El focused on the historical background of each scene.
“There was blatant segregation in Pittsburgh. Why are the kids playing together and the adults are shopping together?” she posed.
The response from one Jewish teen was illuminating, she said. “The student told me that ‘people didn’t like us the way they didn’t like you.’”
“More than anything else I am impressed by the sincerity and interest of the students,” said David Schlitt, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives who, along with Sam Black, director of African-American history at the Heinz History Center, is working with students and educators to support Connecting Communities.
This is “not history from the top down,” Schlitt noted. “The agenda is much more set by the conversations that the students are engaged in.”
Future sessions will enable continued dialogue as well as actual exploration. Tours of both the Hill District as well as the East End, East Liberty and Squirrel Hill are all scheduled. Joining the teens, staff and educators in the program will be Zack Block, executive director of Repair the World: Pittsburgh.
Collectively, the group is going to be able to “peel the onion” on a neighborhood of significant history, said Schlitt.
For the teens, though, the experience will be much more personal, said Gerecht. “This is not just a history seminar. If all they can do is recite dates, times and names in the neighborhood, then we missed something.”
“I want them to get that there’s nothing really different from us,” added El, and “to have fun in discovering each other’s cultures.”
It helps that the original idea for the program came from teenagers, who, along with Block, approached Gerecht last year. That led to the Rev. Glenn Grayson, founder and director of the Grayson Center, encouraging the kids both to “learn more about the Jewish culture and encourage them to want to learn more,” said El.
Gerecht voiced hope that the teens develop a “stronger relationship with each other and a shared history of the neighborhood, a reflection on how communities respond to change and what opportunities there are for working together moving forward.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.