Operation Understanding DC celebrates 25 years

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Scott Rechler, Deborah List and Kia Darby were members of Operation Understanding DC’s fourth class. Photos by Samantha Cooper

The goal for any organization like Operation Understanding DC is to put itself out of business. And while after 25 years, the nonprofit that works to bring African-American and Jewish teens together hasn’t reached that point, it has grown so much and helped so many people that those in attendance at its
recent anniversary party were ecstatic.

More than 200 people, ranging from donors to board members to alumni and their parents — and the program’s current class of 25 high school juniors from the metro area — came out for the March 17 celebration at the Silver Spring Civic Center. Rabbi Bruce Aft of Congregation Adat Reyim, a board member of the organization, was there.


“It’s just great [that OUDC has been around this long],” said Aft. “It serves 24 to 32 students a year, so it’s probably served over 600 students by now.”

Many of those students have gone on to continue the work they started in the program, like Atiba de Souza and Scott Rechler. De Souza, a member of the inaugural class, became a pastor. His wife, Tanika, was a member of the second class. Their children also have participated.

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Rechler, meanwhile, is the director and CEO of LearnServe, which helps high schoolers from different backgrounds tackle challenges at home and abroad.

“We’re coming up on 20 years [since we’ve participated],” Rechler said. “For me, it was about just the opportunity to learn with other students from different backgrounds.”


Others, like Aaron Jenkins, have gone on to work for the organization itself. Jenkins served as both as OUDC’s program director and executive director.

OUDC founder Karen Kalish spoke about the creation of the organization. She was inspired after seeing former congressman Bill Gray appear on the “Today Show” with a black kid and a Jewish kid to discuss the national group and the importance of establishing connections between both communities.

“I gotta do this,” Kalish said. She immediately called Operation Understanding, got permission to use the program and the name and then set out to establish a local chapter.

At first, she “made every mistake in the book” while trying to raise the money, she said. But everything worked out well in the end.

At the event, OUDC aired a short film about the history of the organization. Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders led the crowd in prayer and a blessing; everyone also celebrated the life of Josh Shulman, a member of OUDC’s second class who died in 1998 after a battle with non-Hodgkins’ Lymphoma.

They also honored Jane Lang and Andy Shallal, two people who have been dedicated to OUDC for many years. They both received the first Karen Kalish awards for their dedication and work in the
nonprofit sphere.

But the evening was mostly to celebrate the fact that the organization had survived for so long and has been so successful in educating so many young people.

“OUDC has brought me to places I never would have gone, allowed me to have conversations I never would have had, to meet people I never would have met. It showed me how to be a leader, an organizer, an empathizer, communicator and to be afraid to ask questions that might make people uncomfortable,”
Andrew Fish, a member of the first class said.

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