Shira Deneer: Teaching Immigration in Jewish Schools

What can students in a Jewish educational setting learn about their identities and immigration today by studying the stories of Jewish immigrants from the past? To explore this question, and why it matters, Re-imagining Migration Director Adam Strom spoke with Shira Deneer, the Director of Facing History and Ourselves Jewish Education program.

Facing History’s Jewish Education Program works with educators and young people to connect the past to the present through the integration of history and ethics. The program aims to expand students’ exploration of their Jewish identity and deepens their understanding of modern Jewish history, and honors the principles of social justice and repairing the world.

With the support of the Covenant Foundation, Facing History’s Jewish Education Program is partnering with Re-imagining Migration on the dissemination of Re-imagining Migration’s resource “Immigration and Identity: Jewish Immigrants and the Bintel Brief.”

Adam Strom: Hi Shira, thanks for agreeing to do this. I want to start our conversation with a personal reflection. What do you know about your family’s migration story?

Shira Deener: Not enough.  I’m much more familiar with my mother’s side of the story then my father’s.  My mother’s mother came from a small village in Poland called Chozele, about 85 Kilometers north of Warsaw. They were tailors and when they came over to the US at the turn of the 20th century, they settled in Rochester, NY and ultimately grew a family of 10 children who lived very close to each other.  Some continued in the tradition of the tailoring industry. They were observant Jews who remained committed to the preservation of the Jewish traditions around holidays, Shabbat and Jewish education. Family was always at the center of their concerns.

Adam S.: Moving for the person to the professional, as you think about the work of your program, where do discussions of migration fit in? What would you want teachers in Jewish educational settings to know about migration? What do you want their students to know?

Shira D.: Our work in FH’s Jewish Ed program strives to make connections between the particulars of the Jewish experience and the more universal experiences of the global community.  We do this by applying Jewish wisdom to lessons in history, literature, and civics.

As far as migration is concerned, I aim to give language and a rationale for students to engage with today’s discussion around newcomers to America and the challenges of a healthy and successful integration  True to the Jewish Ed approach, using the stories of the challenges Jewish immigrants experienced when they first arrived in New York provides a unique and window into today’s conversation that students can personally connect to. Many of their ancestors could have written similar letters as those written to the Jewish Forward’s Bintel Brief and concerns about language, work, abuse, family obligations, depression, balancing tradition and modernity are reflected in today’s conversations about newcomers to the US as well.

Adam S: I know that your work using the Bintel Brief has included both educators in Jewish settings as well as educators in secular settings. Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve used the resource in your work?

Shira D.: These letters have been such a successful tool with our educators who teach in both Jewish and non-Jewish settings!  The human story is universal. Like Shawn Tan’s wordless book, The Arrival, which so beautifully depicts the story of loss, unfamiliarity, fear, displacement, opportunity, so too do the Bintel Brief letters.  No matter what your own family’s story of migration looks like, people can find a voice in the letters or an anecdote written by a Jewish immigrant that reminds them of either their own personal experience or those they have heard about in their own family or sometimes those of their students sitting in their own classrooms.  

For Jewish educators, the Bintel Brief letters offer an opportunity to help students engage with our national conversation about immigration today, even if they do not interface with newcomers to the US in their own classrooms. The letters are a tool to develop the empathy muscle that we strive to strengthen, even when those you are empathizing with are not proximate to you.  So, many teachers have reported to us that they have learned about the Bintel Brief letters and implemented them in their classrooms. [Using the letters] their students have opened their eyes to the varied experiences of newcomers and have become more engaged in their pursuit of understanding more about what it all entails.

Adam S. Thanks, Shira for that. That’s what we both hoped would happen. I share your enthusiasm for the work and am looking forward to continuing our work together.