by New York State Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz
For the last 18 years I’ve been fortunate to represent a diverse community in southern Brooklyn. To borrow a term used on Thanksgiving, our bounty is great. We have synagogues, churches and mosques occupying the same streets, all coexisting peacefully. All of us share the blessing of freedom our nation has given us and we possess the same dreams of prosperity, health and happiness for ourselves and our families.
Unfortunately, we don’t always have the opportunity to interact with each other. Because we attend different schools and houses of worship, because our lives may not intersect often, we may be unfamiliar with our neighbors’ cultures and traditions. This absence of knowledge is what allows negative stereotypes to form. Stereotypes create an atmosphere of mistrust. And mistrust, taken to an extreme, festers and devolves into hatred and, too often, into violence.
About seven years ago, I worked with the Kings Bay Y, a large Jewish community center in Brooklyn, and the Turkish Cultural Center to create a program bringing together Jewish-American and Turkish-Muslim teenagers — two groups that had no formal point of contact even though they shared the same community. The Jewish teens are from Brooklyn public schools and the Muslim teens attend the Amity School, a predominantly Turkish-Muslim school in Sheepshead Bay. The teenagers, 20 in total, get together a couple of times each month over the course of a year to work on social action projects, share each in other’s holiday celebrations and take field trips to places like the Jewish Heritage Museum in Battery Park.
Through these activities, the Young Peace Builders – as we called the program – get to know each other and form strong, lasting bonds. They discover that their similarities vastly outweigh their differences. The program has since expanded to engage the teens’ families and communities. Last month, at the beginning of Ramadan, more than 200 Jews and Muslims came together at the Kings Bay Y for a break-the-fast dinner, an annual event started with the Peace Builders. A few years ago, leaders from the Jewish community took the Muslim leaders to Israel, a significant and unusual event for that community. The ripple effects of the program have been profound.
For me, a child of Holocaust survivors, the satisfaction I’ve derived from the success of the Young Peace Builders has been great. Growing up I heard many stories of incomprehensible pain and cruelty that were all too real for my parents, Sam and Sonia, of blessed memory. I promised my parents that I would do everything in my power to make sure our young people understand the dangers of bigotry and intolerance, and the terrible things that happened – and could happen again — unless we make an active, concerted effort to embrace the diversity that enriches our community.
Each year I sponsor a contest in my Assembly district that gives students the opportunity to share what they’ve learned about the Holocaust, bigotry and anti-Semitism – and the importance of treating each other with kindness and compassion. I’m pleased that the diversity of our community is well-represented in this contest.
History has taught us that no group is immune from suffering, and that all of us must work toward achieving the kind of mutual understanding that allows people of all religions, race and ethnicities to not merely co-exist but to live together in peace.
Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz represents the 45th A.D. in southern Brooklyn. In Albany, he chairs the Assembly’s Housing Committee.