It’s just about 14 miles from the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston to St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark.
To some extent, that distance doesn’t really matter right now. The novel coronavirus has so circumscribed our lives that none of us is going anywhere. Fourteen miles might as well be 1,400 miles. Or, for that matter, next door.
Certainly those schools seem to be very far apart. One is Orthodox and overwhelmingly white; the other is Roman Catholic and overwhelmingly Black and brown. One group was shaped by memories of the Holocaust, the other by the realities of racism.
But the students all are American teenagers, all from New Jersey, all growing up in the same online world.
So how different are they? Are the similarities just cosmetic? Are the differences just born of stereotypes? And really, how different is each person from every other person anyway?
Those are questions that a joint afterschool program — necessarily for now an online enterprise — has begun to address this school year.
The idea began with Ariel Nelson of Livingston, whose youngest child, Gabe, is a junior at Kushner. “My mom passed away this summer,” Mr. Nelson said. “She was a Holocaust survivor and a public school teacher. While my brother and my sister and I were sitting shiva, we discussed what we might want to do in her memory. We knew that it would be something Holocaust-related.”
The Nelsons’ mother, Eva Brauner Nelson, was born in Brody, Poland, in 1938. That means that she was 1 1/2 when the Germans invaded; she lived in the ghetto until 1941, and then she and her mother — the only family members who survived — hid in the forest. “They were hidden in the loft of a barn with the animals for the last 18 months of the war, until the Russians liberated them,” her son said. Eva and her mother, Bertha Brauner, went first to a DP camp in Germany and then, when Eva was 11, came to America.
Eva went from knowing no English to speaking fluent, accent-less English. “She wanted to be an American,” her son said. She had absolutely no childhood but decided to devote her life to children. “My mother told my daughter that she wanted to help kids; first she wanted to be a doctor, but if she couldn’t be a doctor, she wanted to be a teacher,” he added. She went to college at night, at the University of Pittsburgh, and then got a scholarship to Stern College; she met Ivan Nelson at a singles weekend at Grossinger’s and had three children, Shalom, Esther, and Ariel. She became a teacher; later she became a special education teacher and she ended her career in Verona as head of the learning disabilities department in its high school. And toward the end of her life, she started talking about the horrors of her early years for Kushner’s “Names, Not Numbers” program.
Ms. Nelson died just around the time that George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, and his murder started the wave of protests around the country. As they sat together for shiva, the Nelson siblings “were going through an old scrapbook of our mom’s,” Mr. Nelson said. There were letters from some of her students. They said things like ‘Mrs. Nelson, if it weren’t for you, I would never have graduated,’ or ‘I never would have gotten a job,’ or ‘I never would have known about ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel.’
“That one really struck me,” he added.
He also saw an email “that said that if it weren’t for your mom, I wouldn’t be a partner in a law firm. She pushed me, even though I was born with a disability, and here I am.
“So we also were thinking about the rise in anti-Semitism nationally, and in racism, and the George Floyd protests, and the recognition that historically you have these two groups, the Black community and the Jewish community, that are natural allies, and how far apart they have grown. And my mother’s impact on kids struck me, and I said, ‘How can we combine these things?’ So I turned to my brother and sister, and said, ‘What if we do something with a Black school in Newark?’”
Mr. Nelson went to the development office at Kushner, and from there he went to talk to the head of school, Rabbi Eliezer Rubin of Teaneck.
“I already had a relationship with Father Ed Leahey,” the Benedictine monk who’s headed St. Benedict’s since 1974; he’s an educator whose extraordinary success — as chronicled, among many other places, in a “60 Minutes” segment in 2016 — have made him a legend in Newark, Rabbi Rubin said. The two men speak at each other’s schools, “and I reached out to him to ask if his school would be interested in collaborating in a joint program on racism and anti-Semitism. He was very eager.
“I worked very closely with Deborah Orens, who teaches English, and also is an attorney,” Rabbi Rubin continued. “She is an authentic intellectual. And Ariel Nelson added important aspects.”
Rabbi Rubin set a boundary. “I was very adamant that you can’t compare the Holocaust to racism, no matter how horrible and oppressive racism is, no matter how much suffering there is,” he said. “The experience of poor people in the inner city will never reach the depth of evil of the Holocaust, when an entire nation turned to genocide.
“But we said that we can look at racism and compare it to pre-war Germany.”
Ms. Orens and Mr. Nelson, working with teachers at St. Benedict’s, put together a “very high-level syllabus,” Rabbi Rubin said. “It was books, articles, historical documents; a class that certainly could be taught at any college in the United States.”
So they had material to teach. What about students to teach it to?
The program is not really a class; it’s extracurricular, after school, and not for credit. But it’s hard. Students were asked to apply for it. “They had to write essays,” Rabbi Rubin said. “Every single one of the students wrote a thoughtful and compelling narrative.” Although the program had been planned for 10 students from each school, Kushner has 17 and there are 10 from St. Benedict’s. There are just about even numbers of boys and girls in both contingents; St. Benedict’s was single-sex until recently but is coed now, as Kushner always has been.
Ms. Orens, who lives in Fairfield, has “always been interested in Black history and Jewish history,” she said. “I have always seen the similarities between them.”
As a lawyer-turned-English teacher, she is skilled at seeing similarities and crossing the lines that separate disciplines, and she’s been able to turn that skill into a class at Kushner. “One of the wonderful things about Kushner is that if you have a plan and an idea and an inspiration, they say go with it,” she said.
That plan, when she first got to Kushner, about seven years ago, was her law and literature class. “For instance, we read ‘The Lottery,’” the terrifying Shirley Jackson short story, “and talk about how conventions change, how societies change, and we look at it in terms of the Akeda,” Abraham’s not-quite sacrifice of Isaac, “and we talk about sacrifice and self-sacrifice.” That’s just one of many works of literature the class, for juniors and seniors, tackles.
“When George Floyd was murdered, I had to stop what I was doing, and we look at it, and Rabbi Rubin said that we had to address the issue. I asked if we could teach a class in Black history, and he said ‘we’ll see.’”
And then Ariel Nelson came with his proposal, and the program with St. Benedict’s was born.
Like Rabbi Rubin, Ms. Orens was impressed by the students’ passion, by the essays they wrote to qualify, and by the diligence with which they follow up. She thinks that the students in both schools were attracted because “they now they live in bubbles. In our school, everyone is white, everyone is Jewish, most of them are Orthodox, and most of them have known each other since they were infants. St. Benedict’s is a Catholic bubble. The chance for them to meet each other and learn about each other was very exciting to them.”
The program, which began in October, was envisioned as meeting every week, but alternating formats, with the two schools coming together one week and meeting separately the next. But that didn’t last. “As a teacher, I have to be responsive to what students want, and they are so passionate about it,” that they all meet together every week.
“The first time we met, it was kind of quiet,” Ms. Orens said. “Now that the students know each other — and they do, even though it’s on Zoom — they bounce back and forth. The only rule in the class is that if you are citing a fact, it has to be from a dependable source, and if it is an opinion it has to be respectful. That’s important for being able to share ideas.”
Of course, at this point the meeting is virtual; the hope is that if the pandemic should end before the school year, the students can meet in real life. If not, then maybe next year’s program — and there will be one next year — can meet more frequently. But it always will be easier to come together at least some of the time on Zoom.
The program is ambitious. “We have objectives and methodology,” Ms. Orens said. “We read John Lewis’s posthumous statement, and Hannah Arendt, and Elie Wiesel’s ‘The Perils of Indifference.’”
There have been speakers, including Senator Cory Booker, who was drawn both by his connection to Newark, which he served as mayor, and to the Jewish community, to which he’s been close for decades. “He talked about how his parents weren’t able to buy their house until their Jewish lawyer came and pretended that he was the buyer,” Ms. Orens said. (That house was in Harrington Park; Mr. Booker went to Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan.)
Students have discussed such issues as the desire for revenge after the Holocaust; “one of our students said that living well is the best revenge,” Ms. Orens said. “Their renewed belief in God and ability to thrive was interesting to St. Benedict’s students. Another interesting discussion was about police and policing. One of the St. Benedict’s students asked when our students feel threatened, and they said that when we are in school or in shul a police presence makes us feel safe. The St. Benedict’s students talk about how they view the police, and how their parents teach them to be careful around them.”
Current events can make sticking to the syllabus hard; what’s going on in real time as students watch demands discussion. “Last week, after the insurrection at the Capitol building, I put together some of the iconography of the shirts,” Mrs. Orens said. “There was so much anti-Semitism and so much racism. These people are combining hatred for both groups. And we talked about the differences in the way the police treated the insurrectionists and the peaceful protestors this summer.
“And then we ended on a more enlightened note by talking about what the Reverend Warnock said.” (After he won the Senate race in Georgia, Rafael Warnock, who is Black, said that both Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and Dr. King himself would be pleased with the state’s two new senators. The other one, Jon Ossoff, is Jewish.)
Not only is Ariel Nelson pleased with the way that the program is turning out, he’s sure his mother would have been too. “It is all for her,” he said.