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Reflecting on the Early Days of Operation Understanding
David Hyman received the George M. Ross Award for Distinguished Leadership from Operation Understanding at its Jan. 10 Gala program at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Ross, who died last year, co-founded the organization that brings together a small group of Jewish and African-American teens for a summer travel experience, either to Israel and West Africa or around the United States. William Gray, an African-American minister who represented Philadelphia in Congress from 1978 to 1991, came up with the idea, inspired by Mickey Leland, an African-American lawmaker from Houston. Leland founded a program that took troubled black teenagers to Israel to work on a kibbutz. Gray’s idea was to instead take the best of the best, and widen it to create mutual understanding among future black and Jewish leaders at a time when relations between the two groups were frayed.
Hyman, a 60-year-old lawyer specializing in government relations, has long maintained close ties to Jewish and black leaders. He’s been the president of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee and is currently president of Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Elkins Park.
He recently sat down with the Jewish Exponent to talk about Operation Understanding and black-Jewish relations. The following is an edited version of the conversation.
How did you come to be involved with Operation Understanding?
As legend has it, 28-and-a-half years ago, Bill Gray, who was George Burrell’s [Hyman’s longtime friend and law partner] minister and congressman, called him one morning and said, ‘I’ve talked to George Ross,’ who was then the chair of the local AJC chapter. They had talked about this idea of bringing some African-American and Jewish young people together. Bill said he needed George’s help and George put the phone down and called me. So I was there pretty much from the beginning. I was 32 when this first came up. Of course, now, our early alumni are in their mid-40s.
There was a notion that this was a one-time trip. The organization didn’t even have a name. We were just calling it Israel-Africa. But it was so successful that we all wanted to do it again.
Did you ever go on any of the trips?
The second year, I was one of the two group leaders and that was the year we bombed Libya. We did a domestic trip because the State Department didn’t want us going abroad. In ’93, I traveled to Israel and Senegal for parts of the trip.
The trip has gone back and forth from being international and domestic. They spend time in New York, in the South, in Washington, Charleston. The last time it went overseas was during the Lebanese war in 2006. The kids were in Israel when the war broke out.
How does the experience affect the participants?
I think there is an awakening on a number of fronts for the young leaders. Part of it is that they are selected because we see the potential for them to be leaders. But there’s an awakening to the notion of perceiving important events in history that help shape them. They come to realize that, though they may see it differently from these other young people they are traveling with, they learn to empathize and understand. These important experiences can be full of growth and learning, even though everybody doesn’t experience it the same way. We don’t call it Operation Agreement. We call it Operation Understanding.
Has there ever been talk of expanding Operation Understanding to young people from other ethnic groups?
All the time. There is a divide. Some people have different views. My view is that there are lots of programs for youth. But what makes Operation Understanding unique is that it focuses on this particular relationship. And that is why I think it could remain in its current form.
What do you make of the black-Jewish relationship today?
The power of this unique alliance is unparalleled. Even though, at the moment, it is not as critical and not as prominent among either group’s priorities, it has a certain power because of how it transformed the country. There is self-interest in both groups in ensuring that it remains intact so that it is available when needed to work on common issues.
If you look at what I was doing in ’85, my focus was on intergroup relations. Now I am a synagogue president. My view is that, the bigger challenge for the American Jewish community is an internal one, rather than an external one. That’s been my personal focus and I think a lot of people agree with me.