Highland Park boy wins Israeli Museum’s ‘My Family Story’ contest

Family for web image
From left: Noah Braverman, Alicia Gejman, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El's Director of Formal Learning, and Josh Gross.

A chuppah (canopy) covered with Jewish symbols shelters pairs of brightly colored wooden pegs.  Each one represents a married couple, the start of a new family. 

The work of art was created by Noah Braverman, a sixth grader at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El's Jack and Mildred Cohen Religious School and is being honored by Beit Hatfutsot, Israel's Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. 

"Family is very important to us," he said.

As a winner of the Beit Hatfutsot contest, the museum brought Braverman to Israel for an awards ceremony in June and is displaying his chuppah, which vividly tells the story of his family, at the museum. 

"I am so proud of him," said his mother, Wendy Braverman.

Noah and his fellow sixth graders at Beth El took part in a yearlong genealogical program, called My Family Story, which was created by Beit Hatfutsot, to learn about their own family stories and how they fit into the larger narrative of the Jewish people. They unearthed old family pictures, discovered long lost recipes and spent hours and hours interviewing with parents, grandparents and great-grandparents about their lives.

"Each child contributes a little piece of the puzzle," said Alicia Gejman, Beth El's director of Formal Learning, who taught the genealogy class. Gejman herself is an immigrant from Argentina. "They see how their own family stories add to the collective narrative of the Jewish people."

The students began the year by researching their family names and their meanings. Next they then built their family trees and found objects meaningful to their family, a tiny silver Kiddush cup brought over from Russia, for instance, and a tallit a father wore at his bar mitzvah. To give these objects color and meaning, they interviewed older family members, asking them where they were born and what they remembered from their childhood.

Putting together all they learned, the students created three-dimensional artistic expressions of their family story. The three projects that were the most visually interesting and the best researched were sent to Beit Hatfutsot, where they will be put on display. A hundred schools worldwide participated in the My Family Story program. Beth El was the only one in Illinois.

Other Beth El projects include a globe with the family's journeys from Eastern Europe to the United States traced with different colored threads, a Tree of Life, a scroll, even a fortune teller, which represents, according to the girl who made it, the good fortune of her family in the United States. Many of them are displayed throughout the synagogue. 

Julia Friedland, another finalist who fashioned a shadowbox, spent hours talking to her great-grandmother, she said. "This was the best part of Hebrew School," she said. "I found out who my family was and that is very important."

"This was one of the most meaningful, educational experiences one of my kids have had in religious school," said her mother, Michele. "Exploring the family tree and family history, especially Jewish family history in this secular world, is huge."

"History can feel remote to them," she said. "But this made it really personal." 

Several of the students said the project has inspired them to create new family traditions that will link the generations. Noah, who discovered a photo taken at a Passover seder in 1927, now wants to photograph his own family seders every year. 

Several times, Josh Gross's grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, tried to tell his grandson his story.

This year, the sixth grader was finally ready to listen. Gross spent hours listening to his grandfather "I discovered that two-thirds of my family was murdered in the Holocaust," Gross said. 

"These were living people who I could have loved," said Josh, an unusually articulate 12-year-old. "Their stories died with them." 

Now, at least, Gross says, their names are known. 

Gross, another of the finalists, plans to tell his own children and grandchildren the story of their family "so that it is not lost for good," he said. "This project will never be over."

Lisa Pevtzow is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area.

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