Moriah students learn from state legislator at Museum of Tolerance
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Moriah students learn from state legislator at Museum of Tolerance

Meeting with Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson culminated middle school unit on Civil Rights movement

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson talks to Moriah fifth-graders at the Museum of Tolerance. (Moriah School)
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson talks to Moriah fifth-graders at the Museum of Tolerance. (Moriah School)

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was not a school holiday for pupils at Englewood’s Moriah School.

Instead, its 250 sixth- through eighth-graders marked Moriah Reads Day last month with a variety of activities culminating their six-week interdisciplinary unit on the American civil-rights movement.

One of the most memorable moments came during their tour of the Museum of Tolerance in Manhattan, where they met with Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson of New Jersey’s 37th District. The district includes Englewood, Englewood Cliffs, Fort Lee, Leonia, Teaneck and Tenafly, all home to Moriah students.

Mr. Johnson was glad that Moriah chose to use the day for learning about racial tolerance and equality. “He told them, ‘If you’re the chosen people, then you are chosen to shed light on equality for all peoples,’” said Rachel Schwartz, the chair of the middle-school English department.

“He told the children it’s important to recognize that there are people across New Jersey and the United States who don’t have the educational opportunities they have at Moriah, and they should learn how to come together with different communities to combat racism and anti-Semitism,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Assemblyman Johnson also talked about the historical connection between African-Americans and Jews, including the participation of many Jews in the 1963 March on Washington, and reminded them that we face similar challenges as minorities in America.”

Englewood eighth-grader Jonathan Comet said he learned from his tour of the museum that the fight for equal rights is far from over in many parts of the world. “In North Korea and other places, people are dying for standing up for what they believe in,” he said.

The annual Moriah Reads Day “is designed to infuse school spirit through academics and to open doors that the children have never opened before,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Every year we choose a book that challenges them academically, spiritually, and emotionally. The teachers of both general and Judaic studies also read the book, so we have a community of readers.”

The title this year was “March: Book One” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. This graphic novel is based on Congressman Lewis’ life story, from his early years in segregated Alabama to the March on Washington to receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2011.

“We have a kickoff event over Chanukah and then the children read the book in English class while learning the historic perspective in history class,” Ms. Schwartz said. “We end the unit with a day of learning, which this year was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

Rabbi Daniel Alter, Moriah’s head of school, led a learning session with the middle-schoolers exploring the question of whether it is racist for Jews to consider themselves as the chosen people.

“Rabbi Alter talked to us about what a ‘chosen people’ really means,” Jonathan said. “It sounds like it means everyone else doesn’t matter, but we’ve learned that everyone does matter. He told us it really means that different nations and people are chosen for different things. We were chosen to spread monotheism, and the Greeks were chosen to spread philosophy, for example. It’s something we are good at.”

Later in the day, each middle-school student worked with one or two fifth-grade students to create a poster about a prominent civil-rights leader. Every computer-generated poster included a picture and short description of the leader as well as a related biblical verse, and each will be displayed in the school.

“We wanted it to be about Jewish identity as much as about civil rights, to inform our understanding of who we are as Jews in a secular world,” Ms. Schwartz said.

Julia Schwartz, an Englewood eighth-grader, guided her fifth-grade partner in making a poster about Roy Wilkins, a key leader in the NAACP in the 1950s and 1960s, whom she had researched before the trip. “It was very cool to get to talk about him,” she said. “In this whole unit I learned so much about tolerance, and that if you don’t have tolerance you’re not going to get very far.”

Julia said she took away a strong Jewish message, too. “The civil-rights movement was only 20 years after the Holocaust, and it shows how important it is to accept everyone.”

A short film about genocide at the museum introduced Moriah students to the fact that the Jews have not been the only group to suffer atrocities.

“It opened their eyes to injustice across the globe and to the notion that every person has the ability to stand up and fight for justice, to find causes they believe in,” Ms. Schwartz said. “That was our overarching question: What do you value enough to fight for?”

At school, the students watched movies about civil-rights issues, including “Remember the Titans,” based on actual events that happened in a newly integrated high school in Virginia in 1971, when an African-American was brought in as head football coach.

“The children learned that there are people over the course of history who have been faced with adversity and failures, but in the midst of these challenges showed true grit and perseverance to fight for their rights,” Ms. Schwartz said. “At the same time, there are many people who do extraordinary things and do not receive notoriety and fame. We need to look up to both types of people.”

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