As part of our Jewish History curriculum at URJ Heller High, each teacher chooses a special semester assignment, unique to his or her own class. In my class, the students prepare a semester-long immigration assignment that traces back their families’ roots to how they originally arrived in North America and ultimately to the specific place where they live today. The assignment consists of two sections: a well-researched essay and a presentation to our class.
For the essay component of the assignment, the student is required to interview at least two members of his or her family (one interview being from the grandparent’s generation, if possible). They then must conduct the interviews and weave them into a narrative that spans several generations. For the next part of the assignment, they choose a figure from Jewish history (anyone from the Tanakh through the 20th century) and compare the story of the historical figure to the story they learned about their family. The presentation part of the assignment involves the student preparing a 10-15 minute talk which will be followed by answering questions from their classmates.
The reason I chose to make this my semester assignment is because I believe it is vital for people to know as much of their own history as possible. After all, each human on this planet was/is an immigrant at one point or another. As Jews, but also as people in today’s world, it is unlikely that a person will live in the exact same place where all their great-grandparents lived. I want my students to understand this concept by studying their own roots and learning interesting stories about their own families.
This is the second semester that I have done this project and the results have been outstanding. Several times in the last few weeks, I’ve heard the line, “I never knew about this person before” when students describe their family members. The project encourages the students to have conversations with their grandparents that they may not have had in the past. For example, one student wrote about how learning her family’s history and struggles gave her a greater appreciation for who she is today. The presentations provide an opportunity to turn the teaching floor over to the students and allow them to share a lesson that is important to each of them. As a teacher, I strive to create meaningful and personal lessons and these 15 lessons that are taught by my students end up being some of the best of the semester. This year, we heard so many stories of comedy, triumph, tragedy and life. Every put forth great effort in learning his/her immigration story. I am so proud of each of my students.
Evan Wertheim grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where he developed a lifelong love for the Jewish People and Israel. His Jewish identity was shaped by a home committed to Judaism, active participation in synagogue life, and NFTY events (especially his trip to Israel in 1999). Upon finishing his BA at George Washington University, Evan served in the AmeriCorps VISTA program working with people with special needs. In 2007, he made aliyah and has continued to be involved in Jewish life, especially as a member of Beit Tefilah Israeli, a synagogue that is a shining example of pluralistic Jewish life in Tel Aviv. He is studying towards his MA in Tanakh and Talmud at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Evan is thrilled to be a part of the staff and share his love for Am Yisrael with the students.