My Experience with the One America West Virginia Coalition

By Areesa Somani

“I’m telling you — millions of young people are saying they don’t know about the Holocaust,” a pastor in West Virginia said to me at a recent One America Movement event..

I shook my head, astounded. When I returned home that day, I raced to look up the numbers.

He was right.  

According to a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, more than one-fifth of millennials in the U.S. — 22 percent — haven’t heard of, or are not sure if they’ve heard of, the Holocaust. This compares to 11 percent of U.S. adults who haven’t heard of or are unsure if they’ve heard of the Holocaust.

One of One America’s signature programs is One America West Virginia, which brings together churches from West Virginia with Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and African-American communities from Washington DC to work together to address the opioid epidemic. Because of those relationships, Covenant Baptist Church in West Virginia and Adas Israel synagogue in DC began having conversations with each other about bringing their youth together to tour the Holocaust museum. One America connected with the museum and we made it happen (with huge thanks to our partner Rachel Brown of Over Zero). 

We planned a trip where the kids and their chaperones would visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and afterwards, attend services and Shabbat dinner at Adas Israel synagogue. And when I walked outside to greet the groups I could feel a tension in the air. Youth from both congregations were anticipating differences. But as the kids met one another and filed into a classroom provided by the museum, they looked like exactly that: kids.

They learned together in the classroom that day, asking questions and conversing about what they had learned in school and at the museum about the Holocaust and World War II. They learned about children their age in Nazi Germany who were killed for being Jewish. It seemed as though they ended the visit with more questions than answers — but with a new-found appreciation for the differences that had caused nervousness that morning.

We all boarded a bus and drove to Adas Israel for services and dinner. We sat together. We prayed together. We sang together. And I would be remiss if I did not mention that together, they all laughed at me when they realized I had eaten half a loaf of Challah by myself at Shabbat dinner.

Over the past five months of working with One America I have had these moments. I’ve broken bread with Jewish and Muslim community members at an Iftar dinner. I’ve prayed side-by-side with Christians and Jews in their churches and synagogues—from West Virginia to Pennsylvania, to our nation’s capital. I’ve learned that there is still more to discover about my own Muslim faith. And I’ve been welcomed into the homes of veterans and of Americans that I would have previously believed to be unlike me.

That is what makes our One America West Virginia coalition, and this specific event, so unique. From pastors to rabbis, recovery warriors to mothers of opioid victims, health department officials to doctors—across Washington D.C. and West Virginia—One America West Virginia is not only bridging the divides that prevent us from addressing a real and pressing crisis together—but also the generational divides that do the same.

So when our day together came to a close, I found myself surrounded by children and proud parents. And I found myself in awe of the big-hearted folks from Covenant and Adas, and the openness and grace they have imparted onto their children. I found myself learning.

We’ve got a lot of work to do. At One America, we recognize that all of us are learning every day—about the world, about one another and most importantly, about the bonds of affection that hold us together.

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