A Note From Noah

This past Monday, our teaching staff spent the day in a peculiar fashion: downtown, and without children. It was a rich day of learning and growth for our whole staff. I know how much of a burden the day places on our families, re-arranging coverage and schedules to allow our teachers to have this opportunity. I wanted to share with you some reflections on the day.

Our day started in Battery Park, sharing personal reactions to the four “framing concepts” for our day together: immigration, Jewish identity, social justice, and America.

Our staff shared their own immigration stories, which included memories or family stories of boats, planes, being born on Ellis Island, forged documents, Castro and Cuba, and entering a new country with no English. Turning to Jewish identity, we heard our staff’s childhood memories of being made to be ashamed at being Jewish, being asked where the scars are from when your horns were removed, being called cheap, and prior students being shocked to realize their teacher was Jewish. Moving on to social justice, one of our teachers remarked, “What we see in the classroom is a microscopic version of what we see in America right now – what is fair, who decides what is fair, empathy and kindness and where it is lacking.” Our teachers spoke about being tolerant to different ideas, and using education and knowledge to purse social justice. Ending with America, our teachers discussed how many are so appalled at what they hear in our country so they stop listening – but that what we need to do is keep listening and try to understand how different people think and what different people are afraid of.

After this framing conversation, we split into three groups for a guided tour of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The tour was called “Love Thy Neighbor” and focused on the Holocaust through an immigration lens. Certain moments were particularly poignant for us as contemporary educators. We watched video testimony from German Jews that, “A Jew was not allowed to teach; a Jew was not allowed to learn.” We saw a copy of Mariane Rosenbaum’s 1938 report card; the first three quarters were initialed by her father, yet the last quarter was initialed by her mother – Kristallnacht had claimed her father. We heard about “the importance of warning signs” as pre-war Germany “nurtured a climate of fear in which dissent equaled loyalty.” Our teachers spoke about the importance of dissent in our classrooms and also among our staff. We saw a propaganda poster for a pro-Nazi rally held right here in Madison Square Garden in 1939, attended by 20,000 people; we remarked how just the night before many of us watched the Grammys held at MSG.  Moving to the top floor of the museum to conclude the tour, the tone changes to hope and legacy. We heard Bob Dylan sing Times They Are A Changing, we saw the Statue of Liberty framed through the window of the museum, and we saw the legacy of Jews working towards social justice. This was displayed through images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma with Dr King, and images of Save Darfur rallies, accompanied by text explaining that the Jewish response to Darfur “took a leading role in funding relief programs in camps.” Out of the horrors of the Holocaust, Jews emerged as always, fighting for justice

Taking those experiences with us, we then moved to the Tenement Museum, where we were fortunate to view a brand new exhibit called “Under One Roof”, which just opened last month. Split in two guided tour groups, we heard about “racially-based exclusion policies” and immigration quotas. The tour walked us through the curated apartments of three generations of immigrants to the same building: the Jewish Epsteins in the 1950s (Holocaust survivors); the Puerto Rican Saez-Velez family in the 1960s; and the Chinese Wong family in the 1970s. We heard about the “bridges of experience” between these immigrant families in NYC, and how the children in each family described “the strength of our mother.” In Bella Epstein’s childhood room, we saw how her childhood was expressed in material culture, not unlike our own children’s bedrooms: crayons and scissors on her desk, Snow White and other fairy tales on her bookshelf, a doll on her bed, a map of the country on the wall. Bella confronted her experiences of anti-Semitism and xenophobia by embracing her American identity and learning new pop songs. Her home had Shabbat candlesticks in the kitchen right next to a JNF tzedakah box, reminding me visually of my own childhood. All of the children we learned about attended PS 42, the local public school. We heard about “education lifting barriers but also reminding us of them”. The exhibit concludes with a picture taken recently of the living members of all three families, on the sidewalk in front of their former apartment building (now the museum). It was a remarkable image loaded with the power of history and imploring us to learn from that history.

We wrapped our day, standing on the cold sidewalk, asking our teachers to see their classrooms and their students as “history-in-the-making.” We spoke about how every interaction we have in our community builds what will become our own history. We ended our day with a question: What do you want your history to be? What stories will history tell of your classroom, your teaching practice, your students?

Shabbat shalom,