GHA Studies Immigration: More Than Words on a Page

GHA Studies Immigration: More Than Words on a Page




Three years ago, Greenfield Hebrew Academy’s (GHA) Interim Head of School, Leah Summers –then principal of the elementary school –was thinking about integrated learning. “Our Judaism and our love for Israel are such vital parts of who we are at GHA that they underlie all of our learning,” she said. “I thought, why not bring it out into the open in art classes, or literature classes, or science, math, or drama, or social studies? So I talked with Vicki Flink, one of our fourth grade teachers, about how we might incorporate our experience as Jews into the standard fourth-grade social studies curriculum.”

Mrs. Flink loved the idea. She mulled it over for a year, thinking about the Jewish experience in the U.S. and the many ways it could become part of the fourth graders’ study of United States history and geography. Of course, she wanted it to be age-appropriate, yet challenging. Mrs. Flink also planned to incorporate every realm of study available at GHA—including art, music, technology, and the performing arts.

“I spent a lot of time thinking about my own parents’ experiences,” said Mrs. Flink. “They were Holocaust survivors from Greece who came to America in 1952. That led me to think about what children can learn from the immigrants in their own families; the contributions immigrants have made, how they might have felt as they started over somewhere else. I wanted them to start their research at home, to incorporate what they brought from their own families into the project.”

By 2013, Mrs. Flink was ready to develop the idea with her fellow fourth-grade teachers, Liora Krug and Renee Treisman. The three of them created the new fourth grade immigration unit, culminating in Coming to America: An Immigration Play, written by Mrs. Flink. This year, the threesome repeated the very successful program, with the unit running from January through April.

First, students were asked to research an immigrant from their own family tree and interview him or her. If there were no living immigrants in their families, they could interview someone who had known an immigrant, or a family friend. The results were eye-opening for the children, who discovered things about their own families that they had never known.

“I interviewed my great-uncle,” said student Yonatan Levy. “I knew he was from somewhere else because he has an accent, but that’s it. He told me stories that I had never heard before. There was no freedom in Cuba, so his parents sent him and his little brother to America by themselves, when they were teenagers.” Jonah Gordon’s parents are immigrants from South Africa. “They came to America to find safety and a better future for our family,” said Jonah. “I interviewed my grandfather about my great-grandfather, who came from Turkey,” Leo Esworthy said. “He came because there was better education here, and it was dangerous in Turkey, too.”

“The family interviews were a really intense experience for them,” said Mrs. Flink. “They were videotaped, and we played some of them at the culminating performance. The children found out that a lot of them came because they couldn’t practice their Judaism in their own countries, and some of them left family behind.”

Further, Mrs. Flink pointed out, “The students asked the same questions, and hearing all the different responses was so instructive! For example, it was very interesting to hear what immigrants brought with them. Shiraz Agichtein’s grandfather brought a hand-written siddur that had been in the family for many years; Yonatan Levy’s great-uncle brought a gold watch that he had disguised by dipping it in iodine, because he was not allowed to leave with any valuables; Elliot Sokol’s grandmother carried a mezuzah in her hand.”

The fourth graders went on to do many projects over the next few months, all examining the immigrant experience. Students wrote journals from an immigrant’s point of view, created PowerPoint and Prezi presentations, and built models of Ellis Island. Max Pargman made a movie and recruited his family as actors; Max Schorvitz wrote his own song and accompanied himself on guitar. The fourth graders each chose a famous immigrant to research for the “Suitcase Project,” in which they filled shoeboxes with things that symbolized items their immigrant may have brought to the U.S.

Fortunately, a member of GHA’s custodial staff, Dawit Woldetsadik, received his United States citizenship at about the same time that the fourth graders began studying immigration. Mr. Woldetsadik shared a copy of the test he had taken to obtain citizenship, and the students agreed that it was very difficult. “I wanted kids to understand that, even though many people want to come to America to find freedom, it doesn’t just happen; it takes time and effort,” said Mrs. Flink.

As the fourth graders started work on the culminating play, music teacher Dona Wise became involved. “I suggested that we perform the song, ‘My Mother’s Menorah,’” said Mrs. Wise, “and [Technical Theatre Director] Joel Coady, with help from [Technology Specialist] Jonathan Farazmand, created a slideshow of photos of every fourth grader holding a family menorah.” Another song from the show, “Proud to Be an American,” featured students accompanying the performance in sign language learned from GHA Middle School teacher Marci Kaplan.

The hallways outside the fourth grade classrooms are covered with bulletin boards displaying various aspects of the immigrant experience. An interactive board allows students to figure out the foreign origin of certain American words and phrases; “When I First Saw Lady Liberty,” designed by art teacher Anita Stein, features historical facts about the symbol of U.S. immigration; a board features photos of the students’ immigrant relatives, frames created in the art department with teacher Devi Knapp, and another is a map that offers facts about each state in the U.S. Finally, the pre-Passover performance, co-directed by Middle School Hebrew teacher Yaira Auz, brought it all to the parents.

“This was a collaborative effort, and it wasn’t only we three teachers who brought this project to life. So many people came together from so many different departments to make it possible!” said Mrs. Flink. This thought led to another insight about the immigration project. “One of the things we really wanted the students to think about was whether America is a melting pot or a salad bowl; are you holding on to your individual traditions, or trying to blend in?” She felt that the students had come to understand that the answer to that question is, a little of both. “I think that we, as Jews, want to fit into a world where we can contribute and do our part, but we are kept together because we hold onto our Judaism and the traditions that make us unique.”

Editor’s note: Leah Braunstein Levy is the author of “The Waiting Wall”, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for 2010, and a contributing author to “Kaddish, Women’s Voices,” winner of a 2013 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. She can be reached at,

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