LOCAL | Taking students time-traveling SMDS-RJA reenact Israel’s founding

BY MIKE SHERWIN, ASSISTANT EDITOR

“Welcome to 1897.” That was the greeting Carol Rubin, Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy assistant head of school, offered to students who crawled their way through the “time tunnel.”

Minutes earlier, teacher Janelle Brooks had instructed the students to expect a different world when they came through the tunnel leading from one room to the next.

“When we get to the other room, the fourth graders are not going to be fourth graders anymore,” Brooks said. “We are going to actually get to go to the First International Zionist Congress.”

So, the auditorium at B’nai El became Basel, Switzerland. And the fourth graders became Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizman, and a plethora of early Zionist thinkers gathered around a table on stage for debate and discussion.

For the past three years, SMDS-RJA has made an historical reenactment part of its curriculum. The first year was Colonial America and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Last year, the students were

“transported” along the Oregon Trail to learn about Westward Expansion.

This year, with Israel’s 60th anniversary, the students looked at the formative years of the modern State of Israel, from the First Zionist Conference around the turn of the century, to the proclamation of Israel’s independence in 1948.

Three SMDS-RJA teachers, Brooks, Becky Lerner and Paula Hertel worked since January on establishing a curriculum for students at the school to learn about the founding of the State of Israel. For the past month, students have been learning about modern Israeli history, leading up to the full day of activities.

Each grade had a particular focus, which they studied more in depth. Hertel, a fourth grade teacher at SMDS-RJA, said her class learned about prominent Zionists at the time, watched a film from the Brodsky Library on Herzl and Zionism, and learned about the Dreyfus Affair. Then they practiced a play on the Zionist Congress, which they would dramatize –in costume — for the other students at the school during the school’s reenactment day on May 30.

Fifth grade students learned about the early leaders of Israel: David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Abba Eban. And the fifth graders would take on those storied personalities for the culminating event of the reenactment day: the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The school would look on as the fifth graders reenacted the important moment in Israel’s history, as well as listening to an audio recording of the actual signing, followed by dancing in the “streets,” in the courtyard next to the playground.

All day, the students went through a series of six stations, to experience what life was like for settlers in Israel.

“The stations were to give a feel of flashes in time of the yishuv,” Brooks said. “So the six stations were flashes in time, but also different media they could work with, utilizing the talents we have in our staff.”

“We wanted them to understand what it meant when Herzl said ‘If you will it, it is no dream,'” said Lerner, the school’s Hebrew coordinator and teacher. “We wanted them to understand that freedom isn’t free — that there’s a cost, and a lot of people had to work hard, and be responsible for the land as they were living in it and developing it.”

Through art, dance, music and costumes, SMDS-RJA teachers and Shany Batit and Eliana Smith, the Sherut Leumi shlichot visiting St. Louis through Kollel Torah Mitzion, helped the students experience life as settlers in Israel.

At one station, students pounded metal into lanterns. At another, SMDS-RJA Head of School Philip Dickstein acted as Eliezer Ben Yehuda, and had the children do a verbal code-breaking exercise, to understand the challenge of establishing Hebrew as a modern, common language in Israel.

Batit and Smith got into character as members of the Palmach, the underground defense force for the settlements. Students created a tower and a stockade out of boxes, topped with an Israeli flag.

For fifth grader Miranda Rubin, this year’s reenactment was her favorite of the past three years.

“This year was different because the whole year we were studying Jewish and Israeli stuff, and in the end it turned out we were studying it for a good reason: We actually got to reenact it,” she said.

For fifth grader Rachel Bluestone, who played Golda Meir in the reenactment of the signing, the exercise gave her a better sense of what life was like for settlers in Israel.

“We had no idea what it would really look like. We had studied about it, and seen pictures, but we really felt like we were there,” she said. “It was really cool.”

“Across the spectrum, people were making connections,” Brooks said. “Emotional connections, intellectual connections, and then on the most basic level continuing the idea of ‘learning as fun and as a journey.'”

“I think every single one of these guys benefited from this process,” she said.

Hertel said it was particularly poignant to see the children actively learning about Israel’s history.

“One of my students said something very meaningful,” said Hertel, whose class came together at the end of the day for a discussion about the day’s events.

“He said, ‘We began with a dream, and we ended with Eretz Yisrael.’ I just thought that was very powerful.”

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