RJA students take a step back in time


Eva and Gretl Schneider, sisters, came from Germany. Nora O’Keeffe and Daniel Gallahan made the trip from Ireland. Karol Jankowski and Sergi Kowalski traveled from Poland. Others in the room left behind their homes in Russia. Freedom, they all agreed, made the hardships of traveling in steerage worthwhile.

Some 90 “immigrants” wearing name tags — all of them under the age of 12 — filled the auditorium last Wednesday at the Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy in Frontenac. The occasion was a re-enactment of the immigration experience that took place in this country between the 1880s and the 1920s.


“The teachers have been working on this project for the past four or five months, and the students have been preparing for six weeks,” said Cheryl Maayan, head of the school. “Every child has been studying age-appropriate material about the same period, with each class contributing to the re-enactment.”

Maayan added that the students so relished the preparations that they have been overheard playing “immigrants” on the playground for a couple of weeks. “It takes great imagination to get into character for the re-enactment, and the students have been very enthusiastic,” she said.

The day-long re-enactment included skits about leaving home on a steamship, living aboard the ship, entering New York Harbor and taking the ferry to Ellis Island. The students also made toys, sang songs, learned folk dances, wrote poetry, made journal entries and planted potatoes.

Mid-day, they feasted on (previously planted and harvested) potatoes prepared according to the culinary traditions of Russia, Poland, Germany and Ireland. At the end of the day, the students took part in a moving torch ceremony as they pretended to be new residents of the United States.

Music and drama teacher Betti Blumoff, fourth-grade teacher Paula Hertel and first-grade teacher Leiba Levine coordinated the re-enactment. Henryk Ptasiewicz, a parent, painted the scenery used for the skits, which Blumoff wrote.

Many of the girls wore shawls or babushkas, some donned aprons over long skirts and one carried a doll. Genna Barashick, 11, especially enjoyed wearing a costume in her role as one of the Schneider sisters. “Dressing up as the people, wearing clothes like they would wear, makes you feel like you are them.” One young man carried a violin case. The boys sported fedoras or newsboy caps. “My Mom found the cap at Target,” said Daniel Pomerantz, 9, who was representing Daniel Gallahan.

Matan Gottesman (aka Sergi Kowalski), 10, reported that before studying for the re-enactment, he had never understood about the crowded conditions on the ships that brought people to the U.S. “The way they lived on the ship — how horrible,” he said. “I know my great-great grandfather and my great grandfather both came to this country, and today, as part of the re-enactment, I get to be in their shoes, see what they experienced.”

Mallory Rubin, 9, in the role of Nora O’Keeffe, noted, “It wasn’t just the potato famine that sent the Irish to America. The English were kicking the Irish out of their homes, and they had to go to America to find more opportunities. But then Ellis Island was scary, too.”

Molly Shapiro, 10, playing the part of German immigrant Heidi Schwartz, said her class watched a video about Ellis Island. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “Some of the people were sent right back by doctors, after that long trip.”

Maayan, head of the school, said she was especially pleased by the re-enactment. “This project has been extraordinary,” she said. “All the students learned that so much of what we all enjoy in our lives comes from other cultures. And the older students had a lengthy discussion about whether our country is a melting pot or a salad bowl.”

What was their conclusion?

“They came up with the idea that the U.S. is neither a melting pot nor a salad bowl — but a stew.”