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Eighth Graders Embark on Transformative Civil Rights Journey to Explore Jewish Identity and Social Justice

Our 8th graders just returned from a two-part capstone experience. First, they spent three days in Chicago celebrating the joy of being together as a kehillah — enjoying fun activities at Six Flags, Astro Fun World, and embarking on a kayaking adventure.

“One of our core values is simcha (joy) and we take our joy seriously,” said Nanci Caplan, Sager School 7th and 8th grade principal. “We want our students to have opportunities to play together and remember that they can always find joy in their community.”

This week, they  lived Schechter’s core values of b’tzelem elohim (in the image of God) and masa (journey), as they traveled to Alabama to explore Jewish identity and social justice. “The trip to Alabama marks a pivotal moment for our 8th graders before they enter high school,” added Nanci Caplan. “It provided a profound exploration of the Civil Rights Movement, sparking essential conversations about hatred, racism, antisemitism, and their relevance to the students’ lives as young Jews.”

As our eighth graders prepare to leave Schechter for high school, they have been exploring their Jewish identity and understanding how the history of the Civil Rights Movement connects to their lives. To bring these concepts and their classroom learning to life, they traveled to Alabama this week as a kehillah.

Led by seasoned Jewish educators, the trip integrated Jewish values into every aspect of the experience. Throughout the four-day journey, students were guided by two central questions: “What were some of the major successes of the Civil Rights Movement?” and “What is the Jewish obligation to further the work of the Civil Rights Movement?”

During their exploration, they visited historic sites and synagogues, including Temple Beth El in Birmingham, Alabama, where they learned about the attempted bombings targeting Jewish activists in the struggle for civil rights.

“We are so proud of the way our students connected with each other and with the goals of this trip,” said Nanci Caplan, Sager School’s 7th and 8th grade principal. “They have been thoughtful, invested, insightful, and determined to learn about the Civil Rights movement, how it connects to their own lives, and what it means to them as eighth graders at Schechter.”

One of the trip leaders remarked that our students asked some of the most thoughtful questions they’ve ever encountered. Their inquiries about the KKK — why it still exists and why our government hasn’t put a stop to it — sparked crucial conversations about hatred, racism, antisemitism, and the experiences of minority groups. During a morning t’fillah (prayer session), discussions focused on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his belief in praying with one’s feet, as demonstrated when he marched with Dr. King. Students reflected on how they could incorporate this active form of prayer into their own lives.

“As we witness a troubling increase in discrimination and hate crimes, it’s more important than ever for our community to be inspired to be vigilant and courageous, just like the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement,” added Missy Cohen, 7th & 8th Grade Social Studies Teacher.  “Our connection to the struggle for equality and justice is deeply ingrained in our Jewish identity, and we must stand together against injustice in all its forms.

Two Student Reflections

“During our visit to the Equal Justice Initiative Museum, we had the opportunity to take a test that black people had to pass to gain the right to vote. This was extremely impactful and it made me realize how there was no way for them to get the right to vote because the questions were impossible to answer. It was a test that no one could pass. It really made me think about power and how one group can control another and the narrative of the Civil Rights movement.” Jaclyn Wynes

“When I heard we were going to Alabama I was very surprised. I have a connection there because of my grandma who lived in Alabama growing up. I saw a reflection of a lot of what she told me about in what we learned, especially at Temple Beth El. We talked about not being bystanders. My grandma advocated and spoke out and did not understand how people around her didn’t speak up. It was really cool to learn about my grandma’s stories actually at the place she lived. Now when I see things happening and I feel like I don’t want to be involved, this will help me stand up and remember that I can stand up and make change. ” Elinoa Jacobs

Thanks to Avi Allali, Anat Barlevy, Missy Friedman, Emily Gurner, Suzy Hakimian, Shlomit Hoch, Eliana Horwitz, Ariela Ish-Hurwitz, Noreen Ohcana, Raphi Ozarowski, Noa Padowitz, Ron Schrag, and Mike Shuman, for traveling with our students on their Chicago-area field trips.

Thanks to Avi Allali, Anat Barlevy, Faye Bearman, Nanci Caplan, Missy Friedman, George George, and the Tzedek America team for facilitating an incredible trip to Alabama. 

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