Herzl School of Excellence Principal Tamara Davis has a dream; it's to see her students through four graduations: eighth grade, high school, college and graduate school.
"We are the living legacy of both Theodore Herzl and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," Davis said. "We've got to ensure that we do the work that furthers their legacy."
Built in 1915, the school was named in honor of Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, even though he never set foot in the United States. At that time, the school's neighborhood of North Lawndale was the hub of Jewish life in Chicago, often referenced as "Little Jerusalem."
Davis honors the neighborhood history, and students learn about Herzl as well as about American heroes, African-American leaders, and other inspirational figures. She points to the lesson of working hard and achieving dreams despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
"Both [Herzl and King] wanted people to look toward a bright future and not get stuck in the dark past," eighth-grader Marina Brown said at a ceremony to unveil a new portrait of the school's namesake on Jan. 17. "Both believed in dreams and fought for their beliefs that dreams can become reality. Both men made their mark, and now it's our turn."
Davis invited Jewish community leaders, including David T. Brown, chair of JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council, to speak to the school's 59 eighth grade students about Herzl's legacy. Moran Birman, consul for public diplomacy at the Consulate General of Israel, also participated in the event, which took place the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"Herzl teaches us to dream a bigger dream," Brown said. "Our city faces many challenges, and it's up to us to link arms together to find solutions."
Donated by Toronto-based attorney David Matlow, the Herzl portrait is part of a nascent collection of images of inspirational leaders such as King, Herzl graduate Michael Scott Sr., whose son Michael Scott Jr. now represents North Lawndale as alderman, and President Barack Obama. The gallery will hang in the school's newly refurbished auditorium.
"The most powerful thing in the world is an idea," Matlow said during the dedication. "Lots of people have brilliant ideas but never act on them. Herzl is my hero because he acted on his idea that the Jewish people should live in a place where they are safe and no one looks down on them. When you look at [Herzl's] picture, I want you to think, 'there's a guy who dreamed big and did something about it, and I want to do the same.'"
Herzl School students watch Matlow's documentary, "My Herzl," every year. He owns one of the largest private collections of Herzl memorabilia in the world.