Principals Perspective (March 2022) - Dr. Eliana Lipsky
Dr. Eliana Lipsky

Family Histories, Jewish Heritage, and Ahavat Yisrael

For the last five months, 7th grade students in our 7-3 Hebrew class have been working on an extensive family history project in partnership with ANU - Museum of the Jewish People. While family history projects are common in schools, the My Family Story project engages students deeply in ethnographic research about their family history with an emphasis on Jewish Peoplehood.

To demonstrate their learning and Hebrew language proficiency, students are tasked with designing and creating an art installation that tells their family history. Participating students are able to compete in the Manuel Hirsch Grosskopf International Competition, the My Family Story. Each year, the winners have their final pieces displayed in an international exhibit and earn a free trip to Israel for the opening of the exhibit.   

Bringing this kind of project to CESJDS was an obvious choice for our Hebrew department. It is the epitome of personalized project based language learning experiences. Under the guidance of Ms. Shelli Putterman-Kenett, US Hebrew Department Chair, and their teacher Mar Guy Koren, our first year running this project was a resounding success. The project culminated last night in our first CESJDS My Family Story competition. As loved ones, teachers, and three judges gathered in the Cardo for their presentations, our students’ energy, nerves, and excitement were palpable.

Every student’s installation was visually stunning, including pictures of their families, newspaper clippings, intricately designed pieces, and one that even included interactive dolls who recounted stories in different languages. Their presentations were moving. As we listened, one could feel a united sense of belonging and peoplehood fill the air. Their stories brought many of us to tears. We learned about one grandfather’s role in liberating Buchenwald when Elie Wiesel was there. A student whose grandfather joined the Haganah. And a grandmother who saved every cent to build a Jewish home for her family while her friends spent their money on material items. One student quoted from the haggadah and the charge to pass down our stories from generation to generation. Another quoted Achad Ha’Am to emphasize the role her family’s Shabbat table plays in their story of connection. Most extraordinarily, each student told their story and answered questions exclusively in Hebrew.

Next week, Rabbi Malkus will be speaking at the Upper School Kabbalat Shabbat assemblies about the importance of Hebrew in our school and the way it connects us to Israel and Jewish communities all over the world. With so much noise around us in the national and global arenas, it can be easy to wonder if our children have, or will grow up to have, the same drive and passion to create an inextricable bond with Israel and be proud of their Jewish heritage. Last night, I found myself breathing a little bit easier because in that moment it was so obvious the answer for these children was a resounding “yes.” Their passion, intensity, and extraordinary accomplishments - as historians, lovers of the Hebrew language, and emerging Jewish adults - reminded me how important it is to focus on extraordinary moments that can be easily overlooked.

Last night may have been a small moment for the world, but for nine 7th grade students, their families, the judges, and their teachers, it was a pivotal moment as they poured their hearts and souls into a project that gave them an opportunity to showcase their Hebrew proficiency while sharing their stories with their loved ones.