Jessie Rievman’s grandfather Henry Freier died long before she was born, in fact while her mom was a teenager. But the 10-year-old from Short Hills has grown up hearing from her mother Randi about how playing soccer, as a little kid in what was then Czechoslovakia, helped him survive the Holocaust.
Some 70 years after that incident, his story helped his granddaughter reach her own goal: Jessie, who is passionate about both sports and art, created a display depicting his experiences, and it won her a trip to Israel — her first.
Jessie’s project was one of 35 finalists in the annual My Family Story-Manuel Hirsch Grosskopf International Competition organized by Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv. On June 13, Jessie and her grandmother Judy Freier joined a group of participants from around the world — most of them two or three years older than Jessie — at all-day celebrations held at the museum in Tel Aviv.
Around 80 fourth-graders in her religious school class at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange took part in the My Family Story program.
With the help of her parents, Randi and Josh, who helped her assemble information and get art supplies, and from her mother’s sister Ilene Brookler, who had done extensive research into the family history, Jessie put together a display giving their background and relating her grandfather’s story. She told how five-year-old Henry and his brothers, in what was then Czechoslovakia, got soldiers guarding a bridge to play soccer with them for three days — and then managed to cross that bridge to reach at least temporary safety.
“Jessie’s very creative and she’s competitive and goal-oriented,” her mother said. “She won’t settle for anything that isn’t perfection.”
Rabbi Ellie Miller, Senior Rabbi Daniel Cohen, and Mindy Schreff, the director of Linda and Rudy Slucker Religious School at the temple, ultimately chose two of the class’s entries to send to the museum — Jessie’s and a project by fellow fourth-grader Abbey Wish. Jessie’s was chosen as one of the 20 winners from abroad, and with that came a round-trip ticket to Israel, sponsored by the Grosskopf family.
“It was an amazing journey for all of our families,” said Miller. “We had so many outstanding and moving projects, it was hard to select just two that would be entered in the competition.”
The winners’ displays will be exhibited in the museum through July and are expected to be seen by thousands of visitors.
“To say we are excited is an understatement,” Miller said. “The museum expressed its admiration for the passion exhibited by our community in bringing this program to fruition. Our temple family was blessed to utilize the ‘My Family Story’ curriculum to connect our students to their personal stories, to their family stories, and to the greater story of the Jewish people.”
Jessie is away at camp and wasn’t available for an interview, but through her mother she summed up the whole experience: “My Family Story is a great program, and it gave me an incredible opportunity to visit Israel.”
Her grandmother had more to say. “In Israel and many of the Latin American countries, the students spend the better part of their school year working on this heritage project,” said Judy Freier. “Jessie’s class was introduced to the assignment two weeks before it was submitted to the international committee. It was an honor to be one of the 35 winners.”
Although Jessie’s project wasn’t among the top two winners, “It was highly emotional for me to see Jessie presenting her grandfather’s story and to know that through her project, my husband’s story will be on display at Beit Hatfutsot, for the world to see,” said Freier. “She, who has never met her grandfather, is keeping him alive. I get choked up every time I think about the whole experience. It was a very special day for me on many levels.”