My family arrived in New York City in the late 1890’s. My great grandmother Esther Miller came alone on a boat from Plunge (pronounce ploo-gia), Lithuania at the age of 16. She went through Ellis Island and went to live with an uncle on the Lower East side of Manhattan. She eventually met and married my great grandfather Isadore and then moved to Brooklyn.
Upon landing in New York City last Friday, we dumped our bags at the hotel and Rabbi Brown, our 9th graders, and I headed directly to the “Top of the Rock” – the observation point on the top of Rockefeller Center. Rabbi Brown pointed out all the key places – Central Park, the upper West Side, the Empire State Building, the Lower East side, and Ellis Island and the Stature of Liberty. I stood there imagining the New York City world through the eyes of my great grandmother – on a boat, alone, passing that statue that symbolizes so much for so many of our immigrants.
Two days later – we found ourselves deep in the Lower East side at the Tenement museum. We heard the story of two immigrant families – one German Jewish and one Italian Catholic. Once again, the echoes of my family were bouncing off the walls of the run down building and tiny cramped rooms. For our students with us, this was an opportunity for them to learn about the history of so many of our families. But more importantly, to begin a conversation about immigration to America – then and now. For Rabbi Brown and me, two Jewish educators seeing this New York world through the eyes of our 9th graders, we started planning many of the follow up conversations.
Friday night we visited Central Synagogue for services. Several of our teens noted how interesting it was to see how other Reform congregations do their services. They all enjoyed the amazing building built in 1875. Ironically – Anat Hoffman was speaking that night. Her message of “raise your voices and be heard” resonated for several of our students. It came up in our conversation about immigration. It came up in our dinner conversation about marriage equality, and it came up in our conversation about encountering drugs in school and within their peer groups.
Rabbi Brown encouraged us to try and “unplug” as much as possible on Shabbat. We started our morning in Central Park. We encouraged our students to use their phone as little as possible and Rabbi Brown pushed hard to “not buy anything that you will take home”. Food was in. Souvenirs were out. When debriefing two of our students particularly noted the holiness of our prayer on Shabbat morning. We read readings chosen by the kids and then took time for our own silent prayer. Sitting together on a rock and singing Hinei Ma Tov in the middle of New York City was a first for me as well.
Our time at the 911 Museum and Memorial was multi-faceted and each of experienced this place in a different way. While waiting for our tickets and time to enter, I shared with our students what that day was like in my life. I had not done that in a long time and thinking back to that day, in the place where so many died, was so very very moving. I tried as much as I could to describe how it felt to be attacked as a nation. I tried to impart the sense of patriotism that burst forth throughout the nation and lingered for weeks to come. These kids were two years old or younger when this happened with no understanding of what it means for no airplanes to be in the air for several days and the eerie quietness that comes with that. For some of us 30 minutes was too long to bear the pain of being in that graveyard. For others 90 minutes was too short to experience all the information and emotion imparted in the many displays, pictures, testimonials, and brick walls. For all of us, this was, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, “a place to mourn and a place dance”. It was mourning for all the lost lives and the sense of safety that was before 911. It was also a place to dance about the future as we saw the buildings being erected at the site that seemed to say to the world – no matter what you do to us, you cannot break our spirit. We will rebuild. We will continue to stand for freedom.
This was a fabulous trip. It was an amazing opportunity to see our Jewish roots in that great city. It was, most importantly, a time of bonding as a community of 9th graders, and creating connections that will last a lifetime. The students, Rabbi Brown and I are so very grateful to the Ferer Family for making this possible with their Temple Israel designated fund. The students recognized that the impact of the trip will live on for many years to come.