ADLs peer program teaches teenagers not to hate

NEW YORK — Disasters often inspire creative remedies.

Reacting to the 1991 riots that rocked the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., the Anti-Defamation League created a peer leadership program to bridge the gap between New York's Jewish and black communities.

Seven years later, the program has reached over 65,000 high school students across the United States as well as hundreds more in six European cities, and recently received attention from First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton witnessed the ADL peer leadership program in session last week at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in Manhattan, marking the beginning of a new joint diversity program between the ADL and the clubs called "Teenagers Fight Back Against Hate."

Chosen by the staff of their various clubs, 23 minority students sat in the shape of a shovel-blade. Four pre-trained peers — Jewish and non-Jewish — stood at the shovel's "handle" and began to dig into sensitive issues: interracial relationships, culture shock, the definition of family and whether to take action in the face of injustice.

As part of the program, the same group had met the previous day and discussed issues including homophobia and anti-Semitism.

"You can't…sit back and expect things to change," said Rachel Weiss, an 11th-grade peer trainer from Brooklyn.

Agreement echoed through the room, the participants seemingly unperturbed by the presence of the first lady and the media.

"Sometimes you just have to realize that a racist person is saying something because that's what his parents taught him, and you just have to relax," said an African-American girl.

A Hispanic peer trainer giggled as he tried to pronounce Anti-Defamation League, and Weiss didn't know that NOW stood for the National Organization for Women. But with remarkable confidence, they cited the two groups as examples of people fighting for "what's right."

Joel Smilow, the retired chairman and CEO of Playtex Products Inc. and a leader in both the ADL and the Boys and Girls Clubs, conceived the idea to bring the two groups together and donated $2.4 million.

The students make at least a one-year commitment to attend weekly meetings and several daylong training seminars, and to run programs in their communities and schools.

"The reason that we are involved with tolerance outside of the Jewish community," said Myrna Shinbaum, director of communications at the ADL, "is because we believe that if there is tolerance for all minorities, America will be a safer place for Jews."

The idea seems to be working. "I heard that Jews were self-centered," 15-year-old Adrian Quarless of the Bronx said at last week's gathering. "But now I see that there's all types.

"They have had a lot of discrimination against them, too, that I never knew before."