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'Jew Crew' thrives at Rufus King

By Austin Greenberg
of the Chronicle staff

January 4th, 2008

At last year’s Ethnic Fest at Rufus King High School, the Muslim and Jewish displays were placed beside each other.

What could have been a cause for concern instead led to a poignant moment of connection: a female Muslim student, wearing a hijab (the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women), painted a henna Star of David on Jewish student Danielle Behrman’s hand.

This gesture was just one of many acts of cooperation that have taken place over the last three years between two student groups at Rufus King: the Jew Crew and the Friends of Islam.

With the assistance of the American Jewish Committee’s Hands Across Campus program, these two groups have worked to build relationships, learn about each other’s cultures and demonstrate goodwill in a world climate that can deepen schisms between the religions.

Though the partnership has at times tested their patience, it has allowed the students to gain friendships and perspective while they identify their own opinions about faith and politics.

Back in 2005, then-sophomore Behrman noticed that every cultural group at Rufus King had their own student association, with one notable exception. With this in mind, she approached Kelly O’Keefe-Boettcher, an English teacher, about starting a Jewish student group at the urban high school.

Unbeknownst to Behrman, O’Keefe-Boettcher had already established a relationship with the AJC. She had received training in Washington, D.C. to become a certified Hands Across Campus teacher and helped start two “Hands” programs at John Marshall High School, where she previously taught.

Hands Across Campus is a social justice/anti-bias program run by the AJC in high schools. Some of the programs include classes that students take during school for credit; some are administered as after-school programs, as is the one at Rufus King.

The programs operate under names chosen by the students.

According to AJC-Milwaukee chapter director Harriet McKinney, O’Keefe-Boettcher, who transferred to Rufus King in 2001, had already noticed that the Jewish students there “were not very ‘out.’”
O’Keefe-Boettcher jumped at the opportunity brought to her by Behrman.

O’Keefe-Boettcher, Behrman, and three other students met and founded the Jew Crew. The principal of Rufus King at that time bristled at their name, fearing it derogatory, but relented in light of the students’ insistence.

The founders of the Jew Crew knew it would not be easy to maintain a strong Jewish student group at a school with about 20 Jewish students out of a total enrollment of approximately 1,500.
Furthermore, fewer than half of the Jewish students at Rufus King had celebrated becoming b’nai mitzvah.

Having grown up in a strong Jewish household, Behrman, now a senior and her class valedictorian, felt very comfortable with her Judaism. The Jew Crew was important, she believed, to make life at school easier for the other Jewish students and “to educate people about Judaism,” she said.

Indeed, life for the Jews at Rufus King has been challenging. The High Holidays, for example, often collided with parent-teacher conferences. Behrman has had to battle to get excused absences for the holidays.

Therefore, when a faculty meeting fell a day before Rosh HaShanah this year, O’Keefe-Boettcher considered it “an educable moment” and invited Behrman to speak about the High Holidays.

The presentation was an eye-opener for most of the faculty. “There is a difference between aware anti-Semitism and unaware,” O’Keefe-Boettcher said. The teachers who may have been uncooperative fell in the latter category, she added.

One faculty member who did not need this lesson was Jesse Mazur, who describes himself as the only practicing Jew on the Rufus King faculty. He serves as an advisor to the Jew Crew and has struggled as a Jew in that role.

Since the Jew Crew and the Friends of Islam have joint activities, Mazur has to be diplomatic. He has witnessed Israel-bashing in discussions between the groups, but has tempered his pro-Israel stances.

“I don’t want to undermine my relationships with the Muslim students. I’m a teacher; that’s my primary job,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance for me,” he said, and it is “very, very difficult.”

Rising tensions

One event last year demonstrated the emotions that can arise when Jews and Muslims discuss politics. An after-school discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict got heated and one of the Muslim students stood up and said that the Jews should “go back to Russia,” said Naomi David, a junior at Rufus King and one of the co-founders of the Jew Crew.

“I walked out of the meeting. I was upset and offended [and felt that statement] was uncalled for,” said David, whose grandmother was released at age 17 from Bergen-Belsen.

Attorney David Lerman, who was attending the discussion the groups, stepped in at that point and explained to everyone present that, without Israel, the Jews don’t have anywhere to go back to, recalled O’Keefe-Boettcher.

“He handled it very clean. We didn’t censor anything.… There were strong statements made from the Jewish perspective, too,” she said.
Another significant exchange between the groups took place after O’Keefe-Boettcher crafted a letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad condemning his stance on Israel.

She presented her letter to the FOI and asked them to sign it. When some of the students hesitated, she said, “I am not going to lead a group that is antagonistic to Israel.”

The students went home and talked with their families about the letter, then came back the next day and said they supported Israel’s right to exist. “They said, ‘We cannot call for the destruction of anyone; that’s crazy,’” said O’Keefe-Boettcher.

The Jew Crew tries to show their support for the FOI in similar ways.
Three weeks ago, at least two members of the Jew Crew were among the estimated 60 students that showed up to watch the award-winning, anti-Israel documentary “Occupation 101:Voices of the Silenced Majority.”

Perhaps the most visible evidence of the groups’ cooperation, however, is a peace garden that they planted along the sidewalk to the main entrance of the school at the end of last school year.

Behrman described the event as “a good ending to a rough year.”
The garden “shows what these clubs are actually doing for the community” and brightens the school, she said.

Reasons for optimism

Although the discussions between the Jew Crew and the Friends of Islam have been contentious, David thinks the two groups will continue to work together. “I definitely see opportunities for another interfaith [discussion],” she said.

O’Keefe-Boettcher has also noticed the progress the school has made. “The culture [at Rufus King] is changing,” she said.

Behrman is also confident that the Jew Crew will remain strong after her graduation this spring. “Ms. O’Keefe-Boettcher will not let it die out,” she said.

For her part, O’Keefe-Boettcher deflects the credit for the groups’ strength to the students. She said, “I’ve asked them to step outside of their comfort zones on several occasions and they have dazzled me every time I’ve asked. They are remarkably brave and hopeful.”

As a Catholic, O’Keefe-Boettcher believes her religion allows her to be an unbiased presence with the Jewish and Muslim students.

She has also earned the respect of both groups. Just as she assisted the Jewish students form their group, she helped the Muslim students found the Friends of Islam three years earlier.

She has a talent for “making everyone feel comfortable,” said David.
“She has a passion for what she does, and is so compatible with everyone because she cares.”

All of O’Keefe-Boettcher’s work with the groups is done on a volunteer basis. And the rewards are great, she said. “Watching a Muslim girl paint [that] henna Star of David on a Jewish girl’s hand could never be replaced by a paycheck,” she said.