In the snowy Mexican village where Oscar Vazquez spent his childhood, kids had to carry firewood to school if they wanted to keep warm. Desperate to provide for his family, Oscar’s father went off to toil in Idaho potato fields, got deported after a year, and subsequently went back over the border to find work in Phoenix. That was where he relocated his family in 1998, when Oscar was 12.
Although Oscar was bright and motivated, and later he would serve with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, his illegal entry into the country proved a costly hardship.
Earlier this year, all 333 students at the Torah Academy of Bergen County read a book about Oscar Vazquez and his friends Cristian, Luis, and Lorenzo. The book, by Joshua Davis, is called “Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and The Battle for the American Dream.”
On March 27, Mr. Vazquez came to the Teaneck high school for boys for its ninth annual Book Day, an event packed with activities related to themes in the year’s chosen book — in this case, immigration law, Mexican culture, and robotics, among others.
“Spare Parts” describes what led the four Mexican teenagers who were in an elective high-school marine-science class to enter the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics at the University of California Competition in 2004. Mentored by two dedicated teachers from their gritty public school, the boys chose to compete not against peers but against sophisticated college-level teams from institutions including MIT.
The audience in the Teaneck yeshiva already knew what happened next, but listened attentively as Mr. Vazquez told them how, despite building their underwater robot out of glued-together PVC pipes and wires on a shoestring budget, the Mexican high-school seniors won the competition. They also won the technical writing prize and a special award for finding an ingenious solution — tampons — to contain a leak in their project.
After writer and film producer Joshua Davis wrote about the unlikely triumph of these undocumented teenagers, Mr. Vazquez received a Fulbright scholarship to Arizona State University. Two years later, new state immigration regulations caused him to lose his scholarship; nevertheless, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.
It wasn’t until Mr. Vazquez tried to join the military, having completed the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program in high school, that he realized the full impact of not having a birth certificate, passport, or citizenship papers.
His difficult path to citizenship required going back to live in Mexico for a year, while his his wife and daughter stayed in the United States. In June 2011 Mr. Vazquez finally became a U.S. citizen, served in the military for more than three years, and now does business analytics for BNSF Railway Company.
Mr. Vazquez has come a long way from that December night when he was a terrified 12-year-old slipping across the border into the American desert with his mom.
“I didn’t know what it meant to come through a hole in the fence,” he told his TABC audience of students, teachers, and administrators. “I just knew that I was now in a different country.”
Eli Levine of Teaneck, a senior at TABC, said that hearing about the hole in the fence and the critical lack of official papers “gave me a whole different perspective about kids who came into the country illegally, not by their own choice, and don’t understand what that means.”
Eli got to explore that perspective further by attending a Book Day session titled “Is Empathy Really a Good Thing?” led by Michael Atlas, a clinical psychologist who is TABC’s director of student support.
Dr. Atlas explained that current research sheds doubt on whether identifying with the pain of others actually is helpful in terms of our own emotional well-being and moral decision making.
“Even though everyone talks about how empathy is so important, too much empathy is bad because it can cloud your judgment. It’s really compassion that’s more important,” Eli learned.
TABC English department chair Carol Master organizes Book Day with former school librarian Leah Moskovits. Over the summer, a faculty committee chooses that year’s book, based on a short list the two women compile and input from volunteer student readers.
“It has to be a book that is appropriate for our students and touches on a different culture, opening their world and providing a human side to an issue that they can relate to and that piques their interest,” Dr. Master said.
“Spare Parts” was especially topical this school year, when the issue of funding for walls across the Mexican border shut down the federal government for 35 days.
“I could see in our discussions in class that they felt this book was relevant to their lives though it described a very different culture than they’ve been exposed to,” she said. “We tried to use it as a springboard to discuss how America is a country of immigrants and how one deals with immigrants. We hope that by learning about what people go through as immigrants, our students will understand the issues in a different way.”
While Book Day sessions ranged from Mexican cooking to graphic novels to auto mechanics, immigration was the central theme.
The keynote speaker was Englewood’s Mayor Michael Wildes, who is the managing partner of immigration law firm Wildes and Weinberg, an adjunct professor of business immigration law at Cardozo School of Law, and the author of “Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door.”
Mr. Wildes’ firm, which his father, Leon, established in 1960, has represented such clients as John Lennon, Melania Trump, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, Lionel Richie, Boy George, and Pelé, along with plenty of regular people seeking a better life in the United States.
Referring to American immigration policy, Mr. Wildes said, “Our door needs to be hinged open; no wall is going to protect us … and we have to make sure that we, the ‘people of the passport,’ set the standard” as a light unto the nations. Mr. Wildes noted the Torah’s emphasis on being kind to the stranger, detailing his strong opposition to separating members of immigrant families.
Several breakout sessions dealt with immigration from a variety of angles.
TABC’s Bible department chairman, Rabbi Howard Jachter, presented Torah sources that could shape a Jewish approach to today’s divisive debates about immigration.
The head of school, Rabbi Asher Yablok, suggested drawing inspiration from the Torah’s reference to the exodus from Egypt as a cause for compassion to strangers, and he led a discussion on how the modern Jewish immigrant experience might affect our outlook on immigration reform.
Rabbi Daniel Fridman, who heads the Jewish Center of Teaneck and is a member of TABC’s academic and administrative staffs, proposed the Jewish legal perspective on “ger toshav,” a gentile dwelling in Jewish society, as a paradigm for Judaism’s attitude toward the immigrant.
Delia Nagar, a Spanish teacher at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, told her personal story as a Jewish Mexican immigrant.
TABC history teacher Marita Poline emceed a Jeopardy-style game in which categories included famous immigrants, contributions by Jewish immigrants to American culture, and the places from which Jews emigrated and where they settled.
Debby Alter, the director of immigrant and refugee services at the Jewish Family and Vocational Service of Middlesex County, described the process required to become a legal immigrant and then a U.S. citizen.
The robotics angle also was resonant, because the school has a maker space with 3D printers.
With Mr. Vazquez there to give advice, TABC’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) coordinator Aryeh Tiefenbrunn helped students design a waterproof housing for the electronic components of an underwater robot like the one described in “Spare Parts.”
“Our TABC robotics team is currently building a robot that can shoot baskets on a mini basketball hoop for an upcoming competition,” Mr. Tiefenbrunn said. At Book Day, he led a discussion of how the human body can inspire robotic designs, and what types of machines are necessary to simulate how human athletes throw balls.
Herschel Sauber, president of Orthocraft, described how prosthetics are built. To show how a person experiences wearing prosthetics, there was a live demo featuring Josh Arrington, a former basketball player who has a computer-controlled prosthetic leg.
TABC Talmud and physics teacher Rabbi Shaya First led a session on robotics, artificial intelligence, and the way human minds develop intelligence. Judaic studies instructor Rabbi Raphi Mandelstam’s session, “Can Alexa Turn on the Lights on Shabbat?” explored the halachic ramifications of robots.
These and many other elements of Book Day provided much food for thought.
“I learned about the benefits of immigration, Howard Gardner’s eight types of intelligence, what my teachers do to make me want to learn, what it’s like to grow up as a poor immigrant, and the halachic reasoning and need for balance in the immigration debate — all in one day,” Yakov Halstuch, a student from Teaneck, said. “It really felt like a unique learning opportunity.”
That was precisely the aim of organizers Dr. Master and Ms. Moskovits, who said, “If our students learned even one new thing at Book Day, we’ve accomplished our goal.”