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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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German language high school teacher, St. Louis teens forge ties through Judaism

Bill Motchan
Alan Kirby

Every spring, Alan Kirby’s classroom at Seckman High School in Jefferson County, Mo. shifts gears from its regular curriculum for one day. Kirby teaches German at the school, which is located about 30 miles south of St. Louis. During this special session, his students learn all about Judaism. That’s when Seckman’s class hosts a group of Jewish teenagers from the St. Louis area who talk about their faith.

The Jewish presenters are members of Student to Student, a program of the Newmark Institute at the Jewish Community Relations Council. It’s designed to provide an introduction to Judaism to high school students who probably don’t have any Jewish classmates or friends. It may be their first experience learning about the Torah and Jewish culture.

Kirby, who is not Jewish, uses the session to demonstrate the connections between the German language has to Yiddish and Hebrew. His primary goal is to show how language can bring people together.

“We’ve been doing it every year since 2002,” Kirby said. “It began in the wake of 9/11. Some of my students got involved in social justice-related issues. It opened their eyes to things going on in the world at that point. So I took advantage of it and encouraged them. And they actually set up the Student to Student program.”

The program was immediately popular and Kirby has kept it going for 20-plus years. The visit by the Jewish students to Kirby’s class begins with a description of Jewish lifecycle events. The presentation is low-tech and uses a show-and-tell technique. The visiting Jewish students often bring props from home—a Kiddush cup, menorah, Shabbat candles—which gives them an opportunity to describe the customs in a typical Jewish home, according to Lauren Abraham, the program’s director.

“Student to Student gives our student leaders the tools to explain what they do on a daily basis in a concrete and understandable way,” she said. “We spend a lot of time on bar and bat mitzvahs. They explain how they get called to the Torah and how they read from a holy book. In Mr. Kirby’s class, we write Hebrew words on the board and show how they are written differently. We focus the most on the Hebrew language and Israel, and the Holocaust and antisemitism.”

The class concludes with a Q&A, where typical questions include “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” and “Would you marry outside the faith?”

Teacher Alan Kirby and his class with guests from the JCRC’s Student to Student program.

Because it’s a German class, world history is often discussed, Kirby said. That generates questions about World War II.

“A lot of questions come up generally every year like, ‘Did you have any relatives that were affected by the Holocaust?’ or ‘Have you encountered antisemitism yourself directly?’ Those kind of questions, I think, are always interesting,” said Kirby.

Kirby assumes that his students have probably heard antisemitic messages at some point. Because his students have little experience with Judaism, he believes the Student to Student presentation is an important educational experience.

“I always tell them why we’re doing this,” he said. “It’s good for them to get this perspective and meet Jewish people face to face.”

Kirby grew up in Kansas and attended high school and college in Springfield, Mo. He became a teacher and earned a degree in German in the mid-1990s. He’s been at Seckman High teaching the language for 27 years. He also has some German roots, including a great-uncle who was part of the SS.

“He was in the Hitler Youth and he was athletic and he was smart,” Kirby said. “They took him away to a boarding school and brainwashed him when he was 12 or 13, and he ended up being captured by the Americans. I was in my early 20s by the time I knew him, and he said he was totally against everything he learned at that time.

At right, Kirby is shown with Student to Student director Lauren Abraham.

“He was lower level, maybe a private,” Kirby continued. “His main complaint was that a lot of people got away with what they did. So he was interested in some of the things that I was doing with the Student to Student group.”

When Kirby was a teenager, he watched two miniseries on TV that had an impact on him: “Roots” and “Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss.”

“I wanted things to be fair and right. It just really bothered me when they were not,” he said. “Then I got a history degree and I took a class on the Holocaust in 1988, so we had several Holocaust survivors that were still alive and who came to speak to our class. That affected me as well.”

Kirby’s attitude about marginalized people was also influenced by his son Teddy, who has an intellectual disability.

“I think that kind of kept me socially active as well, especially trying to eradicate use of the ‘R’ word,” he said. “I modified the curriculum for him. And he took German from me at Seckman and he heard the presentation from the Student to Student group several times.”

When Kirby isn’t in his classroom teaching, he can often be found flying. He has a pilot’s license and enjoys taking to the sky with his single-engine prop plane. With Teddy as his copilot, Kirby sometimes heads west to Kansas City to enjoy a fried chicken meal where they meet up with Teddy’s grandfather.

Kirby’s interest in air travel extends to aviation history, including the B-24, which he’s been researching. The bomber was used extensively during World War II. Kirby is primarily focused on preventing future wars and doing his part to make sure another Holocaust never occurs. He hopes the Student to Student group meeting with his German class is one way of bringing people together.

“When people get to know each other, they’re less likely to have another war,” he said. “I’ve kept up with some of my students over the years and they’re very into social justice issues in all realms. So I’m sure that they would also be allies if they encountered antisemitism.”

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About the Contributor
Bill Motchan, writer/photographer
Bill worked in corporate communications for AT&T for 28 years. He is a former columnist for St. Louis Magazine. Bill has been a contributing writer for the Jewish Light since 2015 and is a three-time winner of the Rockower Award for excellence in Jewish Journalism. He also is a staff writer for the travel magazine Show-Me Missouri. Bill grew up in University City. He now lives in Olivette with his wife and cat, Hobbes. He is an avid golfer and a fan of live music. He has attended the New Orleans Jazzfest 10 times and he has seen Jimmy Buffett in concert more t han 30 times between 1985 and 2023.