The culmination of “Moriah Reads” took place on January 18, the federal holiday marking the birthday of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. For middle school students at Moriah, their project began back on Chanukah when it was announced by MS English Department Chair Rachel Schwartz that this year’s Moriah Reads selection was to be “March: Book One,” a graphic novel, authored by Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and NY Times best-selling artist Nate Powell. The first of a trilogy, “March: Book One” tells the story of Congressman Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., his involvement in non-violent lunch counter sit-ins and his participation in the historical gathering on the steps of City Hall. Lewis’ complete story begins with beatings by state troopers and culminates in receiving the Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president.
In the words of coordinator Schwartz, “The goal of ‘Moriah Reads’ is to take the children to a place they have never been to before, and connect their academic experience with a religious and emotional experience. The book chosen must be accessible to sixth graders and still challenging to eighth graders.” In its fifth year, the project has focused on books about World War I and the Vietnam War as well as issues of special needs and deformities.
As part of the project, middle school students interacted with early grade students in preparation of a cover page for “The Moriah Times” featuring the picture of a famous civil rights advocate, a short biography prepared jointly and a memorable quotation from the personality. This page was completed on class chromebooks amidst an atmosphere of excitement and a sense of accomplishment. Students were treated to the new Maccabeats & Natural 7’s video “Shed a Little Light” as they were completing their project.
Another highlight of the memorable day was the trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Manhattan by three separate groups. At this replication of the famous Simon Wiesenthal Museum in Los Angeles, the students were exposed to visual displays of prejudice, scapegoating, worldwide genocides and participated in discussions in the Point of View Cafe. They were addressed by Congressman Gordon Johnson of New Jersey and docent Tammy Volodarsky, a Moriah parent.
Upon their return, students had yet more meaningful activities to attend. Head of School Rabbi Daniel Alter presented the middle school students with a thought-provoking shiur entitled, “Are We Racist in Describing Ourselves as the Chosen People?” Rabbi Alter drew three conclusions using illustrative stories and inviting student input. First, the Jewish people are not one race but a conglomeration of races whose unifying thread is their adherence to Judaism. The reference to Jewish people as “chosen” refers to their selection by God to serve Him through the fulfillment of the Torah and its commandments. This “chosenness” in no way indicates an elitism or exclusivity. Finally, Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. Every individual is viewed through the Jewish lens as having been created in the image of God. Every individual has the capacity to perform well and merit reward. Thus the answer to Rabbi Alter’s challenge to the students is that we are definitively not racist when referred to as “the chosen people.”
The final activity of the day was the screening of the film “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” introduced by Schwartz.
In speaking with several middle school students, it became apparent that the entire project had larger ramifications than were evident on that one day. For Sophie Weiser and Jedidiah Devillers it was an opportunity for students to use their creative skills in creating a timeline, comic strip or poem about the hardships of the civil rights movement. For Gabrielle Green and Ben Mahpour it was an opportunity to spearhead a school-wide campaign to stop lashon hara (malicious gossip) and create an atmosphere of politeness and appreciation. Eliana Bane was overwhelmed by the consequences of hateful speech which she learned about at the Museum of Tolerance.
“Moriah Reads” is an all-encompassing educational experience that involves students in creative, thoughtful activities and familiarizes them with individuals and groups outside of their own communities and cultures, to create sensitivity and derech eretz.
By Pearl Markovitz