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JKHA Premiers Virtual ‘Names, Not Numbers©’ Program

When the 2019-2020 school year started, plans were already in place for the eighth graders at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (Kushner) in Livingston to participate in Names, Not Numbers©, just as their peers had done each year since the school joined this worldwide oral history documentary project. The students looked to this program as their rite of passage, a powerful and integral part of their final months of middle school.

The Kushner students were luckier than some; they were able to complete their preparation, survivor interviews and film editing prior to the coronavirus shutdown. However, when they left school in March the film was not completed, and as time passed they wondered when and how it would be presented.

Tova Rosenberg, founder of Names, Not Numbers©, told The Jewish Link that there were only two in-person presentations of the Names, Not Numbers© program nationwide this year prior to the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders being imposed. The rest will be presented virtually from now through July, with a few schools hoping to do in-person presentations at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year to kick off next year’s project. The students in Israel never had the opportunity to do their interviews prior to the coronavirus lockdown; they are still hoping to do them if and when they are permitted.

Rosenberg shared, “In February we began looking at how to do this as a virtual event. We saw the writing on the wall. Ultimately, we decided there needed to be a Zoom intro for each school, a minute and a half for the head of school, a minute and a half for me before the film.”

Names, Not Numbers© was started by Rosenberg 16 years ago, and since that time, over 2,500 survivors and WWII veterans have been interviewed by more than 6,000 students in the U.S., Israel and Canada. This year, 40 schools participated.

Rosenberg was quick to applaud the efforts of the students, who were the architects of their own programs. “The program was entirely student-driven,” said Rosenberg. “They developed the questions, 50 in total, about the survivors’ lives before, during and after the war.”

For the students, the program started long before they developed the questions. Their training began when they watched a prior year’s Names, Not Numbers© film, allowing them to get a sense of the magnitude of the endeavor they were undertaking. They were taught interview and filming techniques by trained professionals, and were shown how to edit film as well.

The students worked in groups, and each group was assigned a survivor. The students developed their questions from the bios they received about “their” survivor. At Kushner, the questions were reviewed by Debbie Finkelstein, JKHA/RKYHS dean of instruction, and Stephanie Keiser, project manager. Once the questions were approved, the survivor was invited to the school for the in-person interview.

The students all took part in the actual interview, sharing in the interviewing, filming and notetaking, and ultimately they had over an hour of raw footage that they needed to edit down to under 20 minutes. According to Joshua Kirsch, eighth grader and middle school president, “It took us a whole Friday school day to finish our editing.”

Rosenberg noted, “The students looked at the survivor’s life story, took the interview and edited it down to a story that will leave an impact.”

The editing was completed in advance of March 16, when Governor Murphy shuttered the New Jersey schools due to COVID-19. At that point the students waited, eagerly anticipating the viewing of their final product, but with no information on how that would happen.

According to Rosenberg, that is where the magic of her filmmaker came in. Sandra Stakic, who Rosenberg said “did all the work aside from the students,” took the edited footage from the students and put it together into the final film that was ultimately premiered. Stakic, a filmmaker/director/producer, has been with Rosenberg for 10 years, and though the students never met her in person, she was their collaborator.

“It is important to give hakarat hatov to the people who helped you,” Rosenberg said. “Part of this project is teaching that to our students, along with derech eretz.”

Names, Not Numbers© also teaches students how to speak and interact with survivors. “The personal connections, formed in under two hours, are incredible,” Rosenberg stated. “Interviewing techniques can be taught, but they also learn how to approach an older person.”

Part of the significance for the students is knowing that, for some of the survivors, this is the first time their story is being told. “These survivors range in age from their 80s to around 100 and some of them are telling their story for the first time to these students, “ said Rosenberg. “There are bonds formed. The survivors think of the students like their grandchildren because they shared their story with them.”

For the Kushner students, they finally got to see the fruits of their labor on Thursday night, June 11, when the 2020 Names, Not Numbers© program premiered. In addition to the prepared introduction, the school added something special to their presentation: They invited the eighth graders and their families to a Zoom meeting prior to the film premiere, where the middle school principal, Ariel Levenson; assistant principal, Danielle Goldstein; and Kirsch spoke about the importance of the program.

Finkelstein shared, “One of the most memorable, educational experiences for our JKHA eighth graders took place outside the classroom, behind a video camera recording the first-person narrative of eight Holocaust survivors. I am so proud of the dedication, focus, collaboration and maturity of our students throughout this year-long project. Our eighth graders were impacted by the stories of survival that they heard and understand that this special connection and relationship will be with them forever.”

Rosenberg agreed. “This is an experiential project, and because the students did everything themselves, they will remember it.”

Keiser added, “In this unusual year, we were so fortunate that our students had completed all of the interviews and editing before we went into remote learning. Our eighth graders did an exceptional job in the editing process. What is so special about Names, Not Numbers© is the survivors passing on their story to this generation to retell their stories and experiences. The editing process is what guarantees our eighth graders will never forget the story.”

As all those who introduced this year’s program pointed out, although it was presented remotely, the film connected participants as they watched it “together at home.” “Our shared Jewish history connects us,” concluded Rosenberg. “A huge positive that came out of this is that over 15,000 people have watched so far, thousands more than would see it in a regular year.”

Plans are in place for the 2020-21 Names, Not Numbers© program, but, according to Rosenberg, “The project can be done with variations if needed next year. We are not going to let the project fall because it is too important, to the survivors, to the kids and to the world.”

To view this year’s Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy Names, Not Numbers© program, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7_UT1z1F0I. The link will be live for another week.

For more information on Names, Not Numbers©, visit  www.namesnotnumbers.org.

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