Interfaith teen confab features intense talk, little sleep

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Rochelle, Kelli and Jason were three of 59 college-bound high school seniors who attended the inaugural session of the E Pluribus Unum Conference (EPU), held on Washington's American University campus June 29 to July 20.

Sponsored by the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, the National Council of the Churches of Christ and the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, the conference drew 20 Jews, 20 Catholics and 19 Protestants.

The name E Pluribus Unum, which appears on U.S. currency, is Latin for "Out of the Many, One."

The three-week interfaith program was designed to raise teens' awareness of religion — their own and others — while providing a religious context for social action. In a somewhat grueling schedule, participants engaged in 14 to 16 hours of programming each day, including formal classes, lectures, community service and interfaith discussions.

Spiritual activities included a shacharit (morning service) that Kamins led, as well as "spiritual arts" workshops on dance, creative writing, drama, music and handicrafts.

For some activities, they divided into smaller groups.

Each week the program focused on one of three topics: human rights, poverty and the environment.

"We got about four hours of sleep a night during the week," said Jessica Intrator, a 17-year-old San Jose resident. The free hours the teens created by missing sleep "was the only time we had to explore questions with our friends. And that non-pressured environment was just as important as the academic stuff."

Stefanie Shore, 17, of Stockton and one of four Bay Area Jews attending the conference, concurred.

"When we were outside of class, students would get into heated debates about stuff like abortion," Shore said. "Many of the Christian students were pro-life, and many of the Jews were pro-choice."

Attendance at E Pluribus Unum was free for all participants, having been underwritten by a grant from the Lily Endowment.

For 18-year-old Sarina Evan of Saratoga, EPU offered a taste of adulthood's freedoms and responsibilities.

"This was my first opportunity to govern myself in a living situation," said Evan, who served on the conference's decision-making Governance Council.

The religious community was not EPU's only focus, she said. "It was also about the basics of learning how to live with each other. They wanted us to feel like we could depend on [each other], and in the end we could."

However, "I didn't expect the emphasis on community," Evan added. "We were expected to bond with everyone, and that wasn't mentioned in the brochure."

Kamins was particularly taken with a lecture given by Donna Shalala, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"When someone asked her a question, she didn't lie. She said, `No, I don't know the answer.' That was great because people respected her for that, when they expected her to just talk politics."

In many of the speeches, Kamins thought "there was too much politicking, talking but not saying anything. Teenagers need to have things pounded into their head," and many of the speakers were "running around the issue," she said, emphasizing each syllable forcefully.

One day a speech by the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, a professor at Howard University's School of Divinity, sparked a conflict between black and Jewish participants.

"She was talking about `rich Jews in country clubs'…and at that point every Jew in the room shut down and stopped listening." But, Kamins said, Brown "wasn't expressing her personal opinion. It was a general feeling that she was trying to get across to those who don't know that there are people who feel that way."

Evan was struck by the homeless speakers who came during the week the program focused on poverty.

"It shattered my preconceptions of being homeless. Jasmine, a homeless person, was smart and very articulate. She went to Georgetown [University] for two years, and her husband died, leaving her with all these bills and kids to take care of.

"After her story, she said to us, `Never forget that this could happen to you.' It was weird to think that this could be me someday. That stressed me real hard."

The homeless lecturers had such a profound impact that nearly 40 of the students, Evan said, "used our own money and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"Then we distributed them on the street."