The “museum” exhibits offered a history of Jews in the 20th century, from early immigrants to the United States to refugees who survived the Holocaust.
There was a 60-year-old wedding dress from Morocco, a ketuba from Czechoslovakia, an early 19th-century German siddur, and a midrash book from late 19th-century Poland.
But rather than a traditional Jewish museum, these family artifacts were on display May 21 at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in the “Living Museum of Jewish Heritage” organized by the fifth grade at the East Brunswick school.
In preparation, students and teachers visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York, modeling their displays of annotated family heirlooms after its exhibits.
The students were guided by enrichment, art, and humanities teacher Debra Waldman, technology teacher Sarah Lindsay, and fifth-grade teachers Marissa Bullock and Lisa Greenberg.
“Every object tells a story and it’s up to you to find that cherished object, research it, and tell that story,” was how Waldman described the project to students. “When all these objects are put together, we get the story of the Jewish people.”
The annual event was also the springboard for an intergenerational project involving Schechter, Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, and the Jewish Historical Society of Central New Jersey. The project is being funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County under its new allocations model (see related story).
In addition to researching their family trees, students served as docents as other students visited during the day and parents in the evening.
Scott Rubin of Somerset brought along a worn, yellowed diary written by his “Grandpa Fred,” who fled Germany with his brother months after Kristallnacht. Included are his eyewitness recollections of the 1938 pogrom and his travels to England and finally to America. It also includes essays, which Scott said were done possibly as a school project by his grandfather when he was about 12.
The diary, given to his mother by his grandmother, was especially meaningful because his grandfather died when his mother was only 10.
“I never met my grandfather, but I never would have been alive if the Nazis had captured him,” said Scott. “My mom never would have been born.”
Aiden Wechsler of North Brunswick displayed a black leather-bound “memory book” written in 1968 in Tel Aviv by former residents of Chorostkov, Poland.
The book, which belonged to Aiden’s paternal grandfather, Samuel, includes information about his family, who called the Polish shtetl home for generations before it was destroyed by the Nazis.
“I found out what Jewish life was like before the Holocaust,” said Aiden. “The book has significance to me because it tells me about my family’s history.”
Jake Kroll of East Brunswick displayed a steel dagger with a swastika engraved above its ivory handle. His grandfather brought it with him when he escaped from Russia.
“I wonder if it was used in World War II to frighten or massacre Jews,” said Jake. “We will never know for sure. We’re also not sure whether he killed a Nazi or stole it from a Nazi to get it.”
Sarah Herman of East Brunswick brought a symbol of freedom — a silver Torah yad, or pointer, made by a Yemenite in Israel in 1948 to celebrate the country’s independence.
The yad had been purchased by her great-grandfather, Benjamin Halpern, a former chief engineer with the U.S. Navy, who brought Holocaust survivors to Israel and who, at the request of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was instrumental in building Israel’s navy.
“My great-grandfather would bring ships from the United States to Israel to help build their navy,” said Sarah. She said Halpern served as an engineer on the Exodus, which ferried Jewish refugees from France to Palestine in 1947.
“It sort of makes me proud that my great-grandfather did so many things for Israel,” said Sarah. “My great-grandfather was very proud to help establish a country for the Jews because his parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles were killed in Auschwitz.”
The yad is symbolic of “the ability to pray, to be a Jew, and to live in freedom.”