This has been a multi-generational week – a week where students have had the chance to hear first hand accounts of some seminal historical events. There were two presentations that I was lucky to experience. Both were inspiring; however, the highlight for me was watching our students take it all in. It prompted me to think about the value of our children hearing and mining the stories of people a couple of generations removed from them.
The fourth grade has been presenting family narratives. Some of the parents or grandparents accompany the student’s presentations. The presentation that I heard was about a grandfather who, as a young boy, enlisted in the army to fight in Korea. When he returned to Boston after his time in Korea, he joined the Haganah (the underground army that was the precursor to the Israel Defense Force) and he set out for pre-state Israel to defend boats of refugees that were bound for Palestine. When he returned to the States, he was involved in fundraising for the new State of Israel. He was chosen by Ben Gurion to accompany him on his fundraising speeches in Boston.
The students have read about Ben Gurion in Jewish studies, now they were meeting someone who was with Ben Gurion and could describe “the person.” This very dignified and mild-mannered man before them had fought in a war and shortly thereafter left the comfort of his home to engage in the dangerous work of the Haganah. He was motivated by his passion for justice and for the creation of the State of Israel.
On the same day, the eighth graders heard a 92 year old Holocaust survivor who was an incredible inspiration. Dora Sorell was born in Romania. At the age of 23, she was taken on a Hungarian transport to Auschwitz. A year later, she was sent to work in a second camp – Weisswasser from which she was liberated two days before the end of the war. She returned to Romania in search for her family – they did not reappear as her parents and other family members were killed, but her boyfriend found her there. She was reunited with her brothers some years later. Dora and her childhood boyfriend were married. She went to medical school in Romania and, sixteen years later, she and her immediate family immigrated to the United States. She retrained in the U.S. so that she could continue her medical practice, and she raised three children.
In her narrative, Dora talked to the children about the living conditions in the camps, about her quest for shoes so she could continue to work, and about the liberation. This diminutive woman exemplified the concept of “grit” that is a significant part of education discourse today. “Grit” is often described as resilience - that ability to rise above the most adverse circumstances to take control of one’s future. I don’t think any child in the room will be able to glibly say “I can’t do...” after listening to this strong woman who embraced a future, was a parent and a physician (in two different countries) not only at a time when few women chose to work in professions but also after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust.
Jewish tradition places a very high priority on honoring the elderly (kibud Zekanim). The emphasis is not simply on caring for their needs – though that is very present in the traditional literature. The tradition emphasizes the importance of learning from our elders. (Exodus Rabbah 38). In Pirke Avot 4:26 (The Ethics of our Fathers), there is a statement that “a person who learns from the young is compared to one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from a vat, whereas a person who learns from the old is compared to one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine”. Maimonides (a key medieval scholar) connects honoring the elderly with honoring scholars – both are repositories of wisdom that must be considered.
We are living in a time when the elderly are still quite vital, and even those who are more frail have valuable stories and lessons to share. In our very impatient world, we must make time for our children to hear these stories and to value the learning embodied by these people. Our children experienced that this week. They also get to experience it daily from our multi-generational staff.
Last week, at a National Day School conference, our fourth grade team gave a riveting presentation on the integration of Judaic Studies, Science, Engineering and Technology. The three teachers, Ms. K., Mrs. Seligman and Morah Kaylee opened their presentation with the following statement: “We are a team who represent three distinct generations. Each referenced key cultural events that happened the year they entered the teaching profession: for Morah Kaylee, 1972 – the first video arcade game, Pong, was introduced and ground troops were withdrawn from Viet Nam; for Mrs. Seligman, 1987 – the first email was sent from China to Germany and the number one TV show was the Cosby Show; Ms K. – 2009 – Twitter went mainstream, Barak Obama took office. I am not suggesting that either Morah Kaylee nor Mrs. Seligman represent the elderly – but I am saying that our students get to experience reflective multi-generational experiences daily.