Growing up in Orange County, Rebecca Rona did not have a single Jewish friend. While her family practiced Judaism, her parents also encouraged a deep appreciation for other cultures. Her mother was a foreign language teacher, and her whole family was intrigued with languages. Rona still treasures a copper sculpture of an African woman that her parents displayed in their house when she was a child.
"It just really shows you how my parents thought of African people as beautiful," she says. After exploring her own religion as a young adult, Rona became committed to improving relationships between Caucasians and people of color.
Today, Rona, now living on the Westside, founded Together, a nonprofit group dedicated to countering prejudice and racism and encouraging people of various backgrounds to understand one another and form friendships.
At a time when cultural tensions are running high, Together is one group that promotes multicultural understanding. Three times a year, Together sponsors a free five-week Friendship Circle program that attracts people of various religions, races and cultures interested in finding a connection with one another.
The spring Friendship Circle met at the Culver-Palms Family YMCA in Culver City on Saturdays. It was Together's 11th circle since the program's inception three years ago. Circles usually consist of 12 to 14 people. Recent participants include people from Ethiopia, Canada, El Salvador, Austria, Syria and the United States.
"I want people not only to accept each other, but to enjoy one another," Rona says. "In the past, a lot of people came to me privately and admitted that they'd come to the circle to rid themselves of a certain prejudice." A few years ago, a woman thanked Rona for helping her to work through her feelings of anti-Semitism.
At each meeting, participants play games and have discussions about their identities, similarities and differences, and finding solutions to help erase discrimination. During the first meeting, an introductory game demonstrated the incorrect assumptions people make about others based on appearances, which sparked a discussion on stereotypes. Sessions also focus on ideas for confronting prejudice. In another exercise, someone in the group acts as a bigot and the others must try to turn that person around in some small way.
"We talk about this to encourage people to not just hear something and remain quiet," says Rona, who participates in every circle. "We model a certain way of dealing with these prejudicial statements."
At the end of every meeting, a different member presents an interesting aspect of their culture to the group, be it a fact, an object or a custom.
Erbie Phillips, an African American, has been involved with Together from early on. Phillips, 45, participated in just about every circle and is now a facilitator.
"The best thing is that I'm able to communicate to my children more effectively when it comes to being tolerant of difference," he says. Phillips says the meetings have influenced him in various parts of his life. As the new director of ancillary services for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, he feels that "my experience [with the Friendship Circle] will assist me, because it's a multiethnic department. I'll try to have a fresh approach to the people I meet."
Ammar and Lobna Kahf, a young Muslim couple, are also part of the recent Friendship Circle. Ammar, an office coordinator for the Islamic Center of Hawthorne, says, "[The meetings] have helped me, because I got to a chance to know more people. Sometimes, as much as you try to know your neighbors, you don't get much of a response. We all share the same human defects and problems and good things, too. The circle also gives me more strength in my belief in diversity."
Rona brings her own background and beliefs to the mix. "I often share about myself, so I tell stories from my past," she says. "I feel very strongly about tikkun olam, which means 'repairing the world.' When I was working to create this and to plan it, I really thought of it as my contribution and my mitzvah."
The next Friendship Circle will begin in October. For more information on Together, call (310) 285-3616 or e-mail TogetherCA@hotmail.com .