Student ‘museums’ tell tales of kin’s Jewish journeys

Student ‘museums’ tell tales of kin’s Jewish journeys

Hebrew school effort helps kids appreciate family heirlooms

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Students from Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York before creating their own “living museum” to display family artifacts.
Students from Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York before creating their own “living museum” to display family artifacts.

Daniel Velez is not a curator, nor is he an art historian or an anthropologist.

Yet the 11-year-old from Montclair has helped create a living museum with his fifth-grade religious school class at Congregation Shomrei Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Montclair.

Daniel and his classmates created “Our Family Artifacts,” an exhibit of 16 items ranging from a grandmother’s ladle to a cherished Book of Psalms to a collection of objects that were owned by Daniel’s late grandfather.

“My grandfather survived the Holocaust,” Daniel explained in an e-mail to NJJN, “and these are possessions from before and after the war. There is a passport, a memo book with recipes (he was a baker), and a picture of my grandfather in Germany post-war. These are things my grandfather gave to my mother.”

The “exhibition” can be found on-line, on a specially designated “Living Museum” website created by the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Shomrei Emunah is one of three local synagogues whose religious schools participated in the project — sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage — over the last few months. The others are Congregation Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, which has taken part for over five years, and Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. While some participating synagogues exhibit artifacts only through the museum’s website, others also create a physical space, sometimes a bulletin board, to show off their work. At Shomrei Emunah, the items were never actually on display in the synagogue, but the religious school did create a printed and bound catalogue. B’nai Israel’s exhibit was strictly on-line.

At Adath Shalom, which began participating before the web component was added, students each year provide a full presentation of their physical objects to the larger congregation community, and then upload some of them along with descriptive information to the Living Museum website.

The project’s goal is to get students “to explore and identify their Jewish heritage,” according to Allison Farber, Museum of Jewish Heritage educator for new media. Through the program, students visit the museum, where they learn how exhibits are created and organized. They then construct their own exhibits about themselves — their families, their history, and their heritage. The results can then be put on the Living Museum website ( In the past four years, 33 schools from across the country have created exhibits and placed them on the website.

“Jewish culture is the focus,” said Farber. But the students also pick up some curatorial and organizational skills along the way, from implementing systems of labeling artifacts to conducting research about them, she said.

The living museum began as a partnership between the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Moriah School in Englewood in 1997. After two years, the museum decided to open the project to the wider community.

Adath Shalom’s sixth-grade class mounted the on-line exhibit “Our Jewish Pieces of History” with displayed objects divided into such categories as rituals, life cycle, personal keepsakes, and home. Among them is student Noam Schaechter’s contribution of his grandfather’s silver Kiddush cup from 1928 Germany. “It was one of a few items that survived the trip from Germany to France to America,” according to Noam’s accompanying text.

When considering the project, said Adath Shalom religious school director Charlotte Frank, “I was immediately taken with the idea of connecting our sixth-graders to their families through the researching of an object. They also learn how to archive something and create a gallery. Learning about those skills opens their minds to why they should go and appreciate museums.”

The exhibit posted by fifth-graders at B’nai Israel —“Jewish Heirlooms” — includes Kyle Basarab’s 10-inch silver candlesticks from Russia that belonged to her great-great-great-grandmother and were smuggled out of Nazi Europe, and a gray suede kipa from the 1997 wedding of student Lucy Dybner’s parents.

“This project makes teaching ritual so much more personal when kids find something from home and bring it in — and it involves the whole family in choosing the best object,” said their teacher, Lisa Fraenkel.

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