By Ben Wolfson
This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, tells the story of Jacob’s favoritism towards his son Joseph, causing hatred and jealousy to spread amongst Joseph’s brothers, resulting in Joseph being sold into slavery after the brothers contemplated murdering him. In this story, the brothers were faced with circumstances they believed were unjust, and decided to take matters into their own hands at Joseph’s expense. This alludes to the larger idea of fairness and one of the key takeaways from this portion is the danger of hatred towards others and the effects that hatred can have, reminding us the importance of pursuing justice in all forms.
This theme is reminiscent of a recent session of the Jewish Teen Leadership Fellowship (JTI), a program for 10th grade students aimed at helping them develop practical skills and gain awareness of Buffalo’s history, civic responsibility, race/diversity, and personal potential all through the lens of applied Jewish wisdom. Each month, the fellowship visits a unique location around Buffalo and hears from a guest speaker related to the theme of the session. In October, we visited The Freedom Wall, a mural commissioned by Albright Knox, located downtown at the corner of Michigan Ave and E. Ferry Street. The Freedom Wall displays portraits of 28 prominent Civil Rights activists and leaders – 14 national figures and 14 local figures.
We had the privilege of hearing from one of the artists who contributed to the wall, Edreys Wajed, during our visit. Edreys discussed the Freedom Wall project, his path to becoming an artist and lessons he’s learned in creating amazing works like the Freedom Wall. One of the stories that Edreys told was the inception of the project and the initial mistakes made by Albright Knox. Initially, the museum had commissioned the wall without listening to the community where the work was located, and did not get input from the Black community at large about which figures were important for them to highlight. This created backlash against the project as community members were outraged that their voices were not being considered.
After hearing from Edreys and spending time at The Freedom Wall, we tasked the teens to research and decide on a Jewish Person of Color who is worthy of being the 29th person featured on the wall. Some teens reflected on the words that Edreys shared, and thought it was not their place to give suggestions of who to add to the wall since they are not a part of the Black community. We decided it was important for the teens, as young Jewish leaders, to give their thoughts to this exercise while still understanding the importance of listening to other groups.
Teen fellow Noah Beiter, a sophomore at Hamburg High School, suggestion that Lani Guinier, an African American Jew from New York, who worked at Harvard Law School and wrote multiple works on democracy, race, and education, be included. “She nearly became the head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice under the Clinton administration but was attacked for her political views which made Clinton withdraw her nomination. She wrote the book Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice, which was published in April 2004. I connect with this activist by using words to inspire and guide others into doing what is good for society. I think Lani Guinier should be on the Freedom Wall for her excellent ways of speaking out against adversity.”
Mazel Tov to Noah and all of our Teen Fellows for being such thoughtful leaders in Jewish Buffalo.
Ben Wolfson is the Manager of Jewish Teen Experience. For more information on JTI or other teen experiences, email firstname.lastname@example.org