Our story as a Jewish community is one of immigration and resettlement; our story is one of joy and hope in the face of those who would make us feel unwelcome.
What our students here in the nursery school have inherited is a global story, in which their parents, grandparents, and great-great-great-great grandparents have amassed a bewildering blend of culture and heritage from all over the world. We are all immigrants or the progeny of immigrants. Our families come from Baghdad, Bombay, Bogota, Haifa, Moscow; Houston, San Francisco, and Queens. We each have our own story; these stories are woven deeply into the fabric of our Jewish community.
This is not “new” for Jewish communities – it has been a part of who we are since our infancy as a People. God asks Abraham, in Genesis 12:1, to “lekh l’kha” – to “go forth from your land and from your birthplace” (the verse was immortalized by Debbie Friedman in her iconic song). Several stories later, we are again reminded of our immigrant past, as Moses, after spending a lifetime in Egypt away from his homeland and family, names his son Gershom. The name literally translates into “a stranger there,” and the Torah explains in Exodus 2:22 that Moses chose this name for his son because, “He said, I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” The point is driven home throughout the Torah, quite cogently in Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers.”
We have all been strangers. While we enjoy the privilege of attending a bright, shiny nursery school and feeling that we very much “belong” in the community we create here, we know that our history has not always been so settled. We know also that this history informs us to reach out with open arms to the strangers around us, in the never-ending work of tikkun olam, of repairing the world. Our history as immigrants informs both who we are and how we interact with the world around us.
As a school community, we are proud to share that we are starting a new initiative this year to embrace the two-fold influence of Our Immigrant Stories – how they have shaped who we are, and how they shape our responsibility to other immigrants. In partnership with our Parents Association, we will be working in the coming months to make Our Immigrant Stories visible, tangible, and relevant to our community.
Beginning with our preK families, we will be inviting our parents to sit down for a (non-mandatory) short “interview” about your family’s background. Where is your family from? How are different parts of the world present in your family’s life? What is your Immigrant Story? We will be compiling a recording of Our Immigrant Stories to share with our school community in a “Listening party” later in the year, and will be complementing this with a visual display in our Common Space. Heading up this part of the initiative will be our atelierista Sari Lipschitz and Eric Winick, Chief Marketing Officer at JCC Manhattan. Our hope is that in the months and years to come, our school children become intimately familiar with their family’s history and the locations in the world that have influenced who they are.
Our Parents Association will be establishing meaningful ways to use Our Immigrant Stories as a catalyst for action. Throughout our city and our country, immigrants and strangers are in need of help and support. We have been those immigrants, and we have known that persecution. We heed the Biblical mandate to open our arms and see ourselves in the stranger. The second half of this initiative is that we will be looking to contribute goods and services to communities of more recently-arrived immigrants, and to build relationships with nursery schools who serve those immigrants. Heading up this part of the initiative will be our Associate Director Shari Taishoff and our PA leadership.
I invite you and your children to partner with me and our school team in this project. In a nation that finds itself polarized and tense, it is my hope that through this project we can find ourselves using Jewish values to build and broaden an inclusive community that embraces immigrants and strangers.
If you are struck with an idea, a story, or a question, please reach out and share. I look forward to learning more about the many stories that our families have in the months and years to come.