Pamphlet Tries to Put the 'Thanks' Back Into the Thanksgiving Holiday

Pamphlet Tries to Put the 'Thanks' Back Into the Thanksgiving Holiday

Jewish Exponent
A bountiful meal is the central element of Thanksgiving, and on Nov. 8, the American Jewish Committee of Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey had such a meal. But it also drew on another Thanksgiving tradition that the organization has instituted: "America's Table: A Thanksgiving Reader." During a shared dinner of multi-ethnic fare at Temple University's Diamond Club, students from Operation Understanding and the Achieving Independence Center read from this new Thanksgiving text.

Operation Understanding works with African-American and Jewish teens, to encourage diversity and cooperation. During the summer, the youth visit Senegal and Israel, and when they return, the young men and women speak to local school groups about their experiences, just as the booklet they read from shares the stories of a host of diverse community leaders.

The 20-page "Thanksgiving Reader" is designed for families to use before commencing their holiday meals, to spur conversations about diversity and what they are thankful for.

"It's a Thanksgiving Haggadah," said AJCommittee executive director Ilana Wilensik.

Notably, the text does not ignore the many ills that marked America's past. It acknowledges that the country has committed some grave injustices -- from slavery to the mistreatment of Native Americans -- but is striving to make things right for the future.

"People respect honesty," said Wilensik. "If you present this pollyanna, sugar-coated picture of the way things are, you lose your credibility."

"People know that there are hungry people in the world; people know that there are poor people in the world; people know that they're right here in the United States," she added. "And people know that things aren't always easy."

The speakers at the evening event echoed the notion that this country is still working on overcoming certain challenges. Dr. Chris MacDonald-Dennis, director of intercultural affairs at Bryn Mawr College, described his childhood in the Boston projects, where he grew up in a patriotic and democratic neighborhood. But after ethnic studies and American-studies courses at college -- from slavery to quotas to internment camps -- he admitted that he honestly hated the United States.

It was only after he began working in community-organizing that a colleague unveiled a truth: "In order to criticize this place, you have to love it."

MacDonald-Dennis realized that any criticism must emanate from a righteous place: "We are this multiracial society that needs to hear each other's voices."

'About Who You Help'

Varsovia Fernandez, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, spoke of coming to Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic at age 12, when political turmoil forced her family to flee because of threats against them. "We lived in fear when we were growing up," she said.

She came to Philadelphia to attend Temple University, and ended up living in a rough part of Northeast Philadelphia, until a Jewish couple in Mount Airy invited her to be their housemate. Fernandez learned that the simple act of accepting someone can make a world of difference.

"It's about who you help -- that's where the difference is made," she insisted.

As part of the evening, Harold Brooks, co-president of Operation Understanding, was honored for the work he does within the Philadelphia community. He lauded the people in the room for all that they do to improve the community, and reaffirmed a sentiment expressed in the reader: that the special night of Thanksgiving is "about everyone getting an equal portion at America's table."

The reader has been put out for the last three years by the national office of AJCommittee.

Families can obtain free copies by calling the group's Center City office at 215-665-2300, or by visiting the Whole Foods stores on 929 South St. or 201 Pennsylvania Ave. in Philadelphia or, in the suburbs, 1575 The Fairway in Jenkintown and 1210 Bethlehem Pike in North Wales.

Date: 11/22/2006

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