Great Neck teens embrace shared humanity, mission on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

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A group of teens work together to assemble bags of goods for the Interfaith Nutrition Network as part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)
A group of teens work together to assemble bags of goods for the Interfaith Nutrition Network as part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

For at least 60 teenagers at Temple Israel’s Waxman Youth House in Great Neck, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was not a day off, but “a day on” for public service and learning to embrace each other despite having different identities.

Middle and high schoolers from across Great Neck mobilized on Monday, engaging in small workshops with Anti-Defamation League facilitators to discuss identity and bias and working together to assemble more than 300 lunches to be given to the Interfaith Nutrition Network.

While the event was part of the UJA Federation of New York’s third regionwide MLK Day of Service, the event was a first for Great Neck, organizers said, especially in the way it brought so many groups together for a cause.

Among the core group of organizers were Rebecca Sassouni of Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc., Veronica Lurvey of Temple Israel, Jordana Levine of Temple Beth-El, and Tiffanie Gentles and Adrienne Vaultz of the First Baptist Church.

“We’re open to spreading Dr. King’s message of God, unifying each other as human beings. If we take our coverings off, we’re still human and we have to look after one another,”  Gentles said. “We’re definitely open and I believe Jordana and the other ladies are definitely open to making this something that can work in this community and others.”

The program spawned from Temple Israel’s Repair the World Committee, which worked with representatives from Beth Hadassah, Temple Beth-El, Temple Israel, the First Baptist Church and the Sephardic group to apply for a $10,000 grant to make the event possible.

“What made it appeal to us was the idea that the Great Neck organizations would be coming together in a way that they don’t usually come together for Martin Luther King Day to engage teens and that we would also have an opportunity to engage the First Baptist Church,” said Veronica Lurvey, the vice president for programming at Temple Israel.

Keshawn Chambers, who normally would attend Temple Beth-El’s interfaith Shabbat, said he didn’t know too much about the program until he got there. Chambers thought it would be interesting though because Martin Luther King Jr. was a black man and he enjoys learning many different things, he said.

Chambers said he learned the importance of being open – to the point where he shared some of his own struggles with other students – and enjoyed being able to make sandwiches to help others.

“I thought it was interesting because I feel more open now,” Chambers said.

The day began with snippets from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and remarks from religious leaders, before students gathered in classrooms for discussions on identity, religion, ethnicity and bias. After that, they gathered around tables to assemble bags of food containing sandwiches and snacks.

Hanna Eshaghoff, a Great Neck North student and Temple Israel member, said the big takeaway was that “everyone is different, but also the same.”

“Everyone was very open and we discussed a lot of issues that not a lot of people like to discuss,” Eshaghoff said. “We learned a lot about each other even though most of us had just met and it was really interesting to see all the different places that people come from and what their values are and what’s important in their life.”

Aaron Amirian, who goes to Beth Hadassah, echoed that lesson.

He learned “about how everyone has a different identity but on the inside we’re all the same and that you have to be accepting and understanding of people, no matter who they are,” Amirian said.

Ultimately Sassouni, the president of Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc., said the event went well beyond what she expected.

“Planning for this event since October, I can honestly say it surpassed my best expectations: the number of students engaged during a day off from school; their level of engagement with Anti-Defamation League facilitators; their sharing of themselves with students who attend different schools, and their eagerness to prepare lunches for food insecure Long Islanders at the Interfaith Nutrition Network,” Sassouni said. “SHAI is delighted to have helped bring this event to Great Neck today.”

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