On Jan. 16, a day when most public school children were off in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, students at Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore in Deal were studying the Civil Rights movement and the life of the man whom the national holiday honors.
Third- and fourth-graders watched Our Friend, Martin, the award-winning animated film about King and his leadership of the American Civil Rights movement. The students discussed what America was like before and after the activism of the late ’50s and ’60s. Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders took part in discussions after viewing a video of the stirring “I Have a Dream” speech King delivered in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial.
To personalize the lessons, students tied the struggles of African-Americans to achieve equality to Jewish tradition and law and learned of the role Jews played in the Civil Rights movement. Fourth-grade Jewish studies teacher Aliza Ross emphasized the Torah’s mandates to treat others with respect and kindness.
“Every single person in the world is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of Hashem,” she told students. “I am different from other people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I can treat those people badly, because those people are also in the image of Hashem.”
Her message was not lost on the youngsters.
“Martin Luther King was right and made a big change in our country,” said third-grader Emily Tawil of Highland Park. “He made everybody feel like they’re somebody. He was there to show people how to respect other people, and he was their friend. People should treat other people with respect.”
First- and second-graders learned words relevant to the Civil Rights movement, such as racism and segregation; what life was like for African-Americans before the achievements of the movement; how peaceful protests helped change laws; and about King himself.
Liviya Urman, a first-grader from Highland Park, said she was surprised to hear about segregation of blacks and whites and learned, she said, that King “wanted them to be together.”
Assistant principal for general studies Bonnie Drazen explained the evolution of race relations to third- and fourth-graders, all of them too young to remember when there was not a black president. While she taught that some terms that were used to refer to African-Americans decades ago, such as “colored,” are no longer acceptable as they once were.
She used stronger language in reference to another term. “There is a word that begins with ‘N’ that is never okay,” said Drazen.
Students questioned why King and other African-Americans didn’t leave the South to escape overt racism.
“A lot of people did not move up north because they had lives there,” Drazen explained. “They stayed in the South and worked for change.”
She told the students in the older grades that many Jews who participated in the movement did so because, based on the long history of anti-Semitism, they could relate personally to the discrimination experienced by blacks.
Talia Braun, a third-grader from Long Branch, said the day’s lessons taught her, “You have to do right. You don’t have to be like everyone else if everyone else is doing the wrong thing.”
YJS director of advancement and communications Shai Goldstein, a former director of the New Jersey region of the Anti-Defamation League, outlined for the older students efforts to gain equal rights for African-Americans as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment — which addresses citizenship rights and equal protection under the laws — and the right to vote as guaranteed by the 15th Amendment. He tied these historic acts to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Goldstein also talked about the Freedom Riders, who aided African-Americans in their efforts to secure their rights in the South in the ’60s.
“My older brother was a freedom rider and was literally beaten,” said Goldstein. Blacks and Freedom Riders “wanted to make America the greatest country it can be. Our country is better today because of them.”
Goldstein told the students King was also a staunch supporter of Israel. Speaking to the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly just 10 days before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, King described Israel as “an oasis of democracy.”
Said eighth-grader Dani Hess of Linden, “I think what Martin Luther King did was totally amazing.”