16th Street Baptist Church

When we first arrived at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, I was so excited to be standing in front of such a historically significant church.  There we stood, on the same ground where a Klan-planted bomb exploded under the stairs of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15th 1963, killing four young girls. This was where thousands of children were violently sprayed by fire hoses and chased by vicious police dogs in a march for equality, where leaders such as Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth once rallied crowds of followers to stand against the injustice of segregation. There we stood in the midst of this intense history, in the city that witnessed so much of the fight for civil rights and continues to carry this message. This is what made the experience so real and meaningful for me. In addition to the rich history of the church we were visiting, we all were really glad to visit another black church, since our first experience at the church in Virginia was so enjoyable.  We sat in our OU mixed rows as the rest of the congregants filled the pews around us and welcomed us so warmly to their church.

The entire service was so beautiful and moving. I especially loved listening to the soulful songs from the choir, their voices creating an uplifting aura in the church and igniting such passion that people were actually lifted from their seats.  As I was listening to the music I began to recognize certain lyrics and tunes from civil rights marches, rhythms similar to those we heard from the Gullah Geechee queen, Queen Quet, and soulful melodies hauntingly like the simulation-reenactment of slavery that we took part in the day before.

The songs reflect the faith, hardships, and triumphs that have been passed on through generations of African Americans for hundreds of years. Hearing those same songs sung so passionately moved me in the way that I was brought into the experiences—I felt the faith and the hardships and the triumphs. It was fun but also enlightening. Just being at the church brought together all the elements of the trip. I am so glad we had the opportunity to visit the 16th Street Baptist Church and it is an experience I will always remember.

Elana Waldstein OU ’13, Abington Senior High School ‘14


We all like to credit ourselves with having beautiful imaginations. We like to think of the endless possibilities of our futures, a lot of times without thinking of the painful past. We don’t always like to believe that our minds can harbor such detailed images of darkness. Like most crucial points in history, slavery is not something that can just be memorized into understanding. It is something that has to be experienced. 

My time at The River Center for Humanities cannot be compared to anything I’ve ever seen, felt or done before. Normally, when people tell you that something is “the most life-changing experience of their life”, they’re either exaggerating or they’re trying to sell you something. Although this is a personal favorite tactic during Girl Scout cookie season, where girls in uniform fight to the death (of their teenage metabolisms) to sell as many boxes as possible, the only thing I am trying to sell here is knowledge.

Being called the ‘N-word’ has always held a powerful hold over me. But to have that word assault the back of my head repeatedly as I was forced to walk to captivity was overwhelming, body and soul. I experienced all my senses shutting down as I was forced to look into the eyes of the man I picked to kill in order to retain my spot as a “good slave”. I tried to distance myself, focusing on the cotton candy blue of the sky and wondering what we’d have for lunch later in the day. All while remembering that my ancestors did not have the luxury of knowing they were safe or knowing when food was coming or even being treated as human beings.

I didn’t make it to the inside if the ‘slave ship’. Part of growing as a person is knowing your limits. And looking into the abyss of the black doorway sent an indescribable feeling into the pit of my stomach. All my childhood fears of the darkness and monsters hiding behind doorways resurfaced. Except the monsters my ancestors had to encounter weren’t large, deformed animals with fangs. They were people. With two eyes and two hands.

To think and say that slavery has no place in the minds of modern day people is to deny a history that still directly effects its descendants. When the experience was over, I was grateful for the arms that wrapped around my back and pulled me into warm embraces. I was grateful for the sky and the grass and maybe even the mosquitoes, for a second. But I was most grateful for the people I have grown with and truly begun to love. Their spirit and their strength gives me strength. Afriye, the director of The River Center for Humanities says that our problems in the world stem from the fact we have not “learned to love each other as human beings”. I would agree. But I know that there is hope here. Within all of us. 

Logan Jones Merrill OU ’13, The Baldwin School ‘14

Howdy! My name is Dan Zager, writing to you from the Deep South. I am one of the Jewish males in the Operation Understanding Class of 2013. With two weeks already passed on our travels thus far, I can write a novel about any concrete experience that we have had. Instead, however, I’m switching gears and discussing a more abstract idea: the group dynamic. Even though the sites we have seen and the people we have met are amazing and do admirable work, the real magic of the famous OU summer study comes in the form of the people on the trip.

            Only in the past few days have I begun to actually realize the absolute necessity of the unorthodox application process and interview for OU. In my interview, I had to cover much deeper parts of my identity and even had to recite a haiku and perform the air guitar in front of a room of 10 professionals. Because of this unusual interview, the interviewers were able to handpick the perfect personalities to participate in our program. There is a calculated balance of complementary personality and leadership traits: talkative people and people who are reserved. Vocal leaders and quiet ones who lead by example. Comedic geniuses and those who focus the group. Those who outwardly express their emotions and those who are stoic. Each of the sixteen members of OU ’13 are a piece of the jigsaw puzzle; the picture is incomplete if even one person is missing. We run as a cohesive unit, especially in group discussions, building off each other’s ideas and energy. “OU Squad Deep” has been thrown around to describe our crew because it not only is a catchy phrase that shows pride, but also encompasses our chemistry perfectly. We run deep in our intellectual capacity, analytical skills, our emotions and especially our unconditional love for one another, connecting on levels much deeper than the surface. Superficial conversation topics such as sports or the weather are rare and looked down upon. Despite the fact that this group dynamic sounds like something out of a utopia, there has been a lot of difficult work behind the scenes to gain such close bonds.

            The only way a group can form genuine bonds is not by just weathering the storm of conflict, but inviting it and facing it with confidence. Conflict is a welcome member of our group, and with so many different personalities, it is inevitable. It is the only way a group can mature as a whole. Believe it or not, every single member of OU has said something that has caused a conflict at one point. But being in OU, we are forced to confront the conflict instead of brushing it under the rug so as to open our minds and learn the necessary human skills of handling disputes. The best part is that when two (or more) people are headed in the direction of a potentially heated exchange, every other member of the squad cares about what is going on, and whoever is present will mediate, provide support, or do anything else to make sure the conflict is resolved in a complete, mature manner and that the people involved will learn something new, whether it be a personality trait, an emotional part of history, or deep, personal feelings inside of themselves and others.

            As the heat of the Southern sun increases, so does the heat within our group. Unlike the Southern heat, however, our heat can be channeled to create a positive experience for those feeling it. Every resolved conflict is a maturing experience. The only way to create lasting friendships is by getting through disputes. Our group connects on such a deep level only as the result of countless hours of discussion, getting to know each other and working through conflict. With just a few days left on our journey, I can visibly see the progress we have made as a group when I compare our current group to the wide-eyed, naïve kids who first left Philadelphia on July 8th.

Daniel Luis Zagar OU ’13, William Penn Charter School ’14

A Powerful Story

Stories can be the greatest tool
Connecting the youth to the past
Andre Kessel said “to hear a witness is to be one”
Those words hit me as if he was aiming right at me,
Wanting me to be one
So I listened
I heard every word of his story to becoming a survivor
We are now connected
I am now a survivor of the most horrific history in Jewish culture
I am a survivor who will keep the story going
Connecting the future youth to the past
So this great story doesnt die
So people can’t say the Holocaust never happened

A changed view on god
Before Operation Understanding I didn’t believe in any spiritual creature. I shut that part of me off …praying had never ended well in my favor so I stopped trying.  But over the course of this trip I have made a deeper connection with myself and through that a closer connection to god. It is a beautiful thing, immersing myself in different cultures but praising only one lord. It was visiting different services that helped me understand all believers believe in one maker. It wasn’t until I visited the church in Birmingham where I truly felt an uplifting feeling in my heart, connecting me with my god, and I cried tears of joy because I finally found that missing piece to complete me. Every piece is needed for me to fully understand all of me.  This experience has helped me to open that part of my heart again, it’s one of my greatest achievements finding where I belong spiritually.

Meqai Herder OU ’13, Abington Friends School ’14

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For the past couple of days I’ve experienced things that I couldn’t anywhere else. I always considered myself a very cultured person, and that’s been taken to another level over the past week. Although I loved to learn about other cultures, religions, and perspectives, I’ve recently been able to live them. I walked into a synagogue and placed a yarmulke on my head, trying to mouth the words to a Hebrew hymn.  Then smirked out if uncomfortably while motioning a prayer that I did not understand, amongst a people that I did not know in the Park 51 mosque. During both experiences I had some internal unrest, despite my open mind, my core values were obviously sensitive to something I had never done or thought of doing before. I hesitantly walked into a gas chamber, and in silence I listened to the tears shed for those who didn’t get to walk out about seventy years ago. I lived a joyous song of praise at a Shabbat service, and the calming serenity of a Muslim prayer, the horror of a Holocaust victim and the pain of their descendants. All these experiences I cherish and know I would regret not taking part in them. However, there’s one that I would want to take back, and that’s when I had to live through my own horror. Upon learning that a life much like my own was killed and condoned, I felt actual anger, and fear and disappointment. The most unpleasant part of it all was that I wasn’t feeling someone else’s pain or dismay, it was my own. What I was feeling were emotions that belonged to me, and though I didn’t want to, I cannot regret feeling them. Without feelings, there is nothing to determine man from beasts.

Emmanuel Olanweraju OU ’13, Mastery Charter School ’14

How often can you say that you’ve hugged a Queen? Can you testify that you’ve looked into her eyes and felt a bond with her, adored her, not for her royal robes or fancy clothes (though she did wear those fierce purple pumps), but for her heart, her character, her love of Slick Rick and Public Enemy, her passion for her people? I am blessed to say that I, on July 16, 2013, met, hugged, and felt a personal connection with and a love unlike any other for Queen Quet of the Gullah Geechee Nation. She is nothing like I expected. I saw her big heart through her words, proclaiming that she fights on behalf of her people day in and day out, a seemingly thankless and very tiresome task. She reigns not on a throne, but with her creek boots up to her hips as she goes into the waters to gather food for her people. Her crown is not one of silver or gold, but one with shells and a symbol in the center of her forehead edifying man, woman and child.

As she took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about her life and the hard work she does, she taught us some songs in Geechee and showed us how to echo the African drums with the clapping of our hands, telling us that that’s what her ancestors had to do when, by law, their drums were silenced. We also reflected on the intelligence of the enslaved Africans through listening to coded songs that warned, encouraged, and bid “Fare thee well!” to those with the flame of freedom burning in their hearts.

I will forever remember Queen Quet the Magnificent. I agree wholeheartedly with the African people from all over that blessed continent in their quest to identify with her, and I echo this statement with pride in my heart for this incredible woman: Queen Quet is my Queen, too! As long as she continues to serve her people faithfully and selflessly, long may she reign!

Sydney Holts, OU ’13, Philadelphia Montgomery Christian Academy ’14

There are sounds

everywhere we go

There was the farm

The thump thump thump and

thwack thwack thwack

Nervous feet stepping over twisting roots and breaking branches.

Then there was the silent irregularity

of gun shots in Crown Heights

Booms we never heard

that deafened our ears all the same.

Then there was the




of Billie Holiday’s voice

echoing through the streets of Harlem

Only complemented by

the thuds of basketballs on pavement

and cars zooming past.

Then there was the squeak of sneakers and silent padding of feet on wood floors and laughter and clapping as we watched men and women dance and twirl and flail and show us what it means to be part of the Ballroom scene which was really the Acceptance Tolerance Love Scene.

Then there was the splash

the rush of running water


into seemingly endless depths

Flowing from the names of those we lost on those days in 1993 and 2001.

Then there was the resonating note

the prayer

in Arabic

at Park 51

Which we all heard

with our foreheads

resting on the ground.

Then there was the whoosh

of everyone’s heartbeats

through my ears

through their chests

as we hugged

after hearing from the TV in rash words, GEORGE ZIMMERMAN NOT GUILTY.

Then there was the finality of a heavy door slamming that was the last sound so many of us heard.


We listen

everywhere we go

We learn to use our ears before our mouths To listen for the things left unsaid The cries not yet cried The laughs not yet laughed and the words too dangerous and too meaningful To have been spoken until now.

– Sarah Neukrug OU ’13, Central High School ’14