When ‘freedom isn’t free’

When ‘freedom isn’t free’

Ben Porat Yosef of Paramus honors veterans with gratitude

Ben Porat Yosef’s first- through eight-graders pledge allegiance to the flag and sing the national anthem on Veterans Day. (Photos courtesy BPY)
Ben Porat Yosef’s first- through eight-graders pledge allegiance to the flag and sing the national anthem on Veterans Day. (Photos courtesy BPY)

‘How do you make a head of school cry?’

That’s a broad question. How do you make the head of a pre-K through eighth-grade Jewish day school cry tears not of sorrow but of gratitude, mixed with awe and joy?

Try putting him in front of an assembly of six in-person American armed forces veterans and 19 others on screen, and then having the children in your school sing to them.

That’ll do it.

That is what happened at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus on Veterans Day.

Jewish day schools — including but not limited to his — are very good at teaching Jewish values and making sure that their students have a thorough, age-appropriate understanding of what each Jewish holiday means, Rabbi Saul Zucker, the head of school at BPY, said.

And we “get a chance to celebrate most of the American holidays — Thanksgiving, Presidents Day, and though we’re not in school for Independence Day — and we do units on them. Although it’s not a holiday, we talk about democracy on Election Day,” he continued.

“But Veterans Day often gets overlooked.”

And that was the realization of the school’s general studies principal, Naomi Maron.

Ms. Maron had the idea, and the program that developed from that idea “was her brainchild,” Rabbi Zucker said. “She said we need to make sure that our students know that we owe boundless gratitude to those who have served our country in the armed forces.

These girls listen to the speakers.

“We need to do something to recognize the hakarat hatov — the debt of gratitude — that we owe them.”

The program that Rabbi Zucker oversaw in the school on Veterans Day was an expression of that hakarat hatov — which is a basic Jewish value, he said — “and a recognition that there has been no country kinder to Jews, maybe in all of history, than the United States, and it is important that the students understand and recognize that.”

So most of the school’s students — first graders through eighth graders — gathered to honor U.S. armed forces veterans.

Ms. Maron and Rabbi Zucker decided to create the program in October. That left them with about a month to put it together. “We gathered names from the great BPY family; we reached out to people we knew had served in any of the American armed forces, and we contacted students’ parents and grandparents. We reached out to senior citizens homes and to Jewish War Veterans. (That’s the organization that, as its name makes clear, supports the Jewish veterans of all branches of the U.S. armed forces.) We found that there were a whole slew of veterans, and we invited them to the program.”

On Veterans Day, six veterans came to the school, accompanied by their families, and 19 others were represented in person by their families, and onscreen by images.

They veterans represented a range of historical periods. “We had veterans from World War II, from Korea, from Vietnam,” Rabbi Zucker said. “Mainly we had older people. There was a chaplain from the first Gulf war, who also did a tour in Afghanistan.”

As the program started, “We opened with the national anthem, and a song called ‘On Veterans Day’ by Karl Hitzemann, and then the veterans introduced themselves, or were introduced. ‘On Veterans Day’ is about how we value you, how we cherish and treasure your time, your effort, your sacrifice.

“All the kids sang. It was haunting.”

And that, Rabbi Zucker said, “is when I was crying. Tears were running down my cheeks.”

Then Rabbi Zucker spoke, telling the assembly about his personal connection to Veterans Day — not that you need that personal connection to feel the weight of the moment, he said.

The students are enthralled by the veterans who talk to them.

“My grandfather, my mother’s father, Saul Schwartz, who I’m named after, came as an immigrant to this country from Poland. He came just a few years before the war” — that was World War I — and he so appreciated the opportunities that America provided that he joined the Army.

“He was not drafted. He enlisted.

“He became a lieutenant,” a rare appointment for an enlisted man to achieve in those days, especially one who was Jewish.

After the war, Mr. Schwartz became both an accountant and a chazan for his shul in the Bronx. “And then he came to a tragic end,” Rabbi Zucker said. “In 1937, he developed a mastoid infection,” a middle-ear condition that is easily treatable by antibiotics now but then, pre-readily available penicillin, was a killer. “My mother was 5 when he passed away,” he continued. “So I grew up with the flag” that his family was given at his funeral.

“I still have that flag,” Rabbi Zucker said.

Rabbi Zucker’s father, Mordechai, “served in Calcutta during World War II. He is a doctor now, he was a medic then. Every morning, he would wake up before reveille, put on tefillin, and daven.

“I don’t think there was another Jew in his platoon, and it was the first time that many of them had seen a Jew.

“They thought that he had invented a new means of taking blood pressure.”

When he talked to the students at the assembly, Rabbi Zucker said, he told them — in a “line that I did not invent — that freedom is not free.

“We don’t have freedom just because we want it. It has costs — in time, in energy, in human lives. We have to recognize that what the veterans gave us goes right to the heart of what it means to be a free people.”

Each veteran had been assigned a middle-school ambassador, and after he spoke, Rabbi Zucker said, each ambassador gave a veteran a flag as a token from the school, and then “we all got up again, and we sang ‘God Bless America. I pointed out that this song was written by a Jew, Irving Berlin, out of his profound sense of hakarat hatov to America.”

And like many other adults there, Rabbi Zucker got a little teary again.

And so, to his surprise, did some of the older kids. “That really blew me away,” he said.

One of the most striking elements to him was the program’s multigenerational nature, and how connected by gratitude and trust the people in the room were.

“We will do this program again,” he said. “I think that it’s really important, and we also will build on it in May, centered around the theme of Memorial Day.” Its lessons of hakarat hatov, of gratitude, continue to resonate through Thanksgiving and on into the spring.

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