Virtually no student here doesn’t have a relative who wasn’t an immigrant at one time,” said Rabbi Elazar Teitz, dean of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, at a swearing-in ceremony — a first-of-its-kind for a New Jersey grade school — for 29 new citizens.
Teitz spoke before a packed auditorium of community leaders, faculty, students, and family members on May 21, welcoming immigrants from 16 different countries — including Brazil, Egypt, India, Peru, Portugal, Spain, and Vietnam — as they prepared to take their oath of allegiance.
“We’re a nation of immigrants, and this ceremony demonstrates the strength and glory of the United States,” Teitz said. “May your presence add to our melting pot and may you and the U.S. benefit from your inclusion in its citizenry.”
The K-12 Orthodox private school, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, received permission from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Service to host the event, modeled on similar ceremonies held at schools in Canada.
After securing approval for the swearing-in ceremony, JEC expanded the initiative into an educational project for its eighth graders, who were each assigned to interview an immigrant in their lives.
“The project was a great lesson for the 26 members of the eighth-grade class, who learned how immigrants from other cultures and generations persevered and succeeded,” said Hillside resident and JEC board member Ora Sheinson, whose 13-year-old son Mordechai took part in the class project.
The event’s keynote presentation was offered by Kean University president Dr. Dawood Farahi, a naturalized American citizen from Afghanistan who said he came to the United States with $200 and limited English skills. He ultimately earned a PhD from the University of Kansas, where he was a Fulbright scholar. “Americans come from all over the world — there’s not a single nation on the planet that doesn’t have a representative in America,” Farahi said.
“Welcome to my country — and now yours,” he added. “I’m glad you made the choice.”
Following the singing of the national anthem by the JEC School Choir, Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage addressed the new citizens.
“We are the great experiment of democracy and a true melting pot,” said Bollwage, himself a descendent of German and Irish immigrants. “The strength of our country is in its diversity, and the strength of our economy is based on welcoming new citizens.
“On behalf of the city of Elizabeth, we welcome you.”
The immigrants received their certificates following an oath administered by John Thompson, Newark District director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and colleague Susan Raufer, Newark Asylum Office director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“I feel good and so, so happy,” said Clyne Etienne of East Orange, a Haitian immigrant who celebrated her citizenship with children Corine, 10, Chekina, four, and Asael, three.
“It’s a very special day, very emotional,” agreed Brazilian-born Anaceras Desouza, 62, a resident of Newark who was accompanied by granddaughter Katherine Martinez, seven. “This is the American dream, delivered.”
Clifton-based JEC eighth-grader Gabriel Altaras, 14, led the Pledge of Allegiance. He interviewed his Israeli-born father for his immigration project.
“It’s an honor for our school to host this event and to welcome everyone as citizens,” he said.
The event had special significance for the Jewish community, Farahi told NJJN.
“Jews were forced out of so many countries throughout history, so to now be the group that welcomes other people to its doors — it’s ‘pretty cool,’ as my kids would say.”