A whole new pew

A prototype  of the bookcase/table and chair that the Roosevelt HIgh School shop students will create for fellow students in the St. Louis Public Schools. 

By Ellen Futterman

One of the goals of the Jewish Light is to be a community connector — connecting readers not only with the news but also ways to communicate with one another. So it’s with a little bit of bravado that I tell you how well this all worked recently.

It starts with Kol Rinah congregant Peggy Nehmen. She sent an article to her friend, Central Reform Congregation congregant Karen Kalish, saying that children who grow up with bookcases in their homes do better in school. Kalish, who began Cultural Leadership, a social justice program for teens in St. Louis, also runs Home Works!, which trains, supports and helps pay teachers in underperforming St. Louis area schools to visit the homes of their students. 

“We know from teacher home visits that many of our families don’t have bookcases, and some don’t have tables for the kids to do their homework on,” Kalish explains. So she went to Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS), to see if there were any shop classes in the SLPS that could perhaps make bookcases and tables.  

“Yes — Roosevelt High School,” says an enthusiastic Kalish. “(Adams) loved the idea — but I had to find wood.  I met with the shop teacher, Bart Adastra, and the principal, Crystal Gale, to see if they were interested — and yes they were.”

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Kalish called around to a number of lumberyards and sent emails to lots of folks looking for donated wood.  One of the people who got the email was Lois Caplan, whose “Kibbitzing with Caplan” column is a fixture in the Light. She included a blurb in a recent column about Kalish looking for wood.

Rabbi Amy Feder at Temple Israel read the column and called Kalish. “She explained that TI was replacing 79 bench pews and would love to donate most of them to the SLPS to be repurposed into bookcases and tables for students in SLPS who needed them,” says Kalish, adding that the first load of pews was delivered to Roosevelt High last Friday morning (the second load was scheduled for delivery Tuesday) and that Temple Israel was taking care of the delivery costs.

Meanwhile, says Kalish, she visited the Roosevelt shop class that had made a mockup of a table with bookcases at both ends, and a chair. “It’s fantastic,” says Kalish, hoping that the table/bookcases will be in SLPS students’ homes by the end of the year.

‘Night’  to remember

After eighth graders at the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School read Elie Wiesel’s book “Night,” as well as his acceptance speech for the 1986 Nobel peace Prize, they couldn’t stop talking about him. “Night” tells of Wiesel’s experience with his father in the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in from 1944 to 1945, at the depths of the Holocaust.

The book was definitely unsettling, but it also brought up lots of questions that the students pondered in class. That gave their language arts teacher, Aura Kavadlo, an idea: Have the class write to Wiesel and ask him their questions.

“A lot of the kids shared their feelings because the book stirs up a lot of emotion,” says Kavadlo. “They needed to put their feelings somewhere. Even the boys said they cried themselves to sleep at night. The book changed them. Most all of the kids said it deeply affected their Judaism.”

So she wrote to Wiesel, saying: “Enclosed in this envelope are the 14 letters from my students. We know you are busy, but if you have time we would love to hear back from you. You are a hero to us all and it would be life-changing for them.”

Some of the letters told Wiesel how impactful his story was. “I wondered how you stayed so strong, especially as a young child,” wrote one. “I wondered if your faith in God had changed. Have your experiences changed the way you view the world?”

Another told how his Zayde had also been in Auschwitz and went through some of the same traumatic experiences as Wiesel. “He is the bravest, strongest, and smartest person I know. Somehow he has learned to use his experiences to teach the next generation never to forget the Holocaust, just like you.”

Still another asked: “Do you think that certain people like yourself were meant to be part of the Holocaust?”

Heady questions, for sure.

Kavadlo was hoping at least to receive a form letter, acknowledging the ones her students sent. What she — and her class -— got back was a personal letter from Wiesel, which coincidentally arrived on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), addressing each of the 14 eighth-graders by first name. The students are away on a trip to Israel; Kavadlo emailed the letter to them there, but is eager to hear their reactions when they return to school Monday.

In his letter, Wiesel told the class that while “Night” was difficult to write, he felt it was his obligation to serve as a witness. “Now, you can be a voice for memory,” he wrote. “It is my hope that by remembering those whose voices were silenced, we will prevent the world from allowing such hatred and prejudice to ever again become so powerful.”

He also told students that his is a “wounded faith.”

“It is something I have examined in different forms in both my fiction and nonfiction writing. In the camps I questioned God’s silence. I believe that questioning is part of faith. I continue to question — within my faith.”

To read the complete letter from Wiesel and a few of the student’s letters, visit stljewishlight.com/letters.