On Feb. 4, about 15 residents of the Daughters of Israel nursing home in West Orange, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, gathered in a large room. Shortly before noon, about 30 students burst into the room, dropped their jackets on a table, and, in pairs, headed straight for their assigned seniors.
They quickly launched into prepared questions, taking notes for what would ultimately become an oral history.
“Did you have a job as a teenager?”
“Is that your son? What’s his name?”
“Did you have a favorite color?”
The group of West Orange High School ninth-graders have been periodically leaving their books and classrooms behind to learn history a different way: by interviewing the DOI residents.
They were all selected from the honors program at the school.
“We selected students we thought would get a lot out of the program,” said their teacher, Douglas Drabik. “We want to show students that history is a living, breathing thing and not limited to books.”
The Daughters of Israel residents were all smiles, full of stories about their lives. Rose Shoshana Telles described to her interviewers how she moved from Russia to Canada and eventually to Brooklyn.
“I was a teacher,” she told a reporter, “and these students are very bright. They’re brighter than I was.”
The students were animated as they listened carefully to the answers to their questions.
One of two students interviewing Telles was Abigail Litwinoff, who said of her subject, “It’s fun to learn her history — where she grew up and what her life was like.”
Her partner, Hannah Rudoltz, said, “It’s so different from learning history in the classroom. Learning from books we read is one thing. Learning from people who practically lived through things is another.”
The project is sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest and was created through the efforts of Mali Schwartz, its vice president. The ultimate goal, according to JHS director Linda Forgosh, is to connect the generations through dialogue.
“If students are really on the ball, they’ll connect their own personal narratives — they’ll see their own family experiences that mesh with people who live lives that are long and rich and varied and that the residents they interview have a great deal to offer,” said Forgosh.
It’s the second time the project has been offered — the first time, students from Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston were connected with seniors at the Lester Senior Housing Community on the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
The residents of Daughters of Israel don’t necessarily think of themselves as part of history. For them, it’s all about getting to tell life stories and about improving self-esteem, according to DOI activities director Barbara Quinlan.
The program is highly structured. Each meeting is organized around a theme; questions are prepared in advance, and there is a larger activity. During this day’s session, the third of five, Forgosh talked about curating an exhibit on the Weequahic section of Newark, the famed Jewish neighborhood. A previous session focused on breaking down stereotypes, particularly those focusing on age.
After the fourth session, the students will be expected to put together an oral history of their interviewees and present it at their last meeting. On this particular Friday, some students were collecting photos for the final project.
There have been a few bumps in the road. Students Farundo Lopez and Hira Ghan had been working with a senior, Gertrude, who became ill. So at this third session, they started from the beginning with a new resident, Helen Kaye. The threesome were already smiling and laughing together. “We miss Gertrude, but we are having so much fun with Helen,” said Farundo.
Meanwhile, Margot Fitzgerald and Clarissa Ford were interacting with Gitel Mezheritsky, who was born in Lithuania. “They are living life in America,” she said. “I had a very hard life and I’m telling them about it,” adding that her stories were opening the eyes of her young companions.
“She’s a sweet woman. We’re comparing our lives to hers. Hers was a lot harder and we feel really grateful,” said Margot.
Over pizza and ice cream toward the end of the session, Drabik said he didn’t think twice when offered the opportunity to participate.
“They may not remember the stuff we do in the classroom. This, they’ll remember forever.”