During the fall semester, Shevach students participated in a compelling literary contest and had the privilege of hearing unique and inspiring guest speakers. These events exemplified the concept that learning and thinking about history teaches us what was, increases our understanding of what is, and helps us design our hopes for what will be.
Shevach’s first literary contest of the year was titled “From Destruction to Dedication.” The contest was launched on the anniversary of Kristallnacht in November. The contest theme centered on the significant connection between the beis ha’k’neses and the Beis HaMikdash. Students were challenged to create original literary works in the forms of poetry, essays, or short stories that explored the theme by comparing or connecting Kristallnacht to Chanukah and analyzing the concepts of churban and g’ulah. The works submitted by the students were incredibly original and powerful. The submissions were judged anonymously by a team of faculty members in both the Limudei Kodesh and General Studies departments.
Asarah B’Teves was the date chosen for a presentation of the winning pieces. Mrs. Shulamith Insel, Menaheles, opened the event by sharing the insight that just as Kristallnacht was a harbinger of the destruction of the Holocaust, so, too, Asarah B’Teves marked the beginning of the Churban Beis HaMikdash. Mrs. Nechama Mirsky, Associate Principal, General Studies, highlighted the depth of the ideas that were reflected in the students’ work and announced the winning entries. A number of the students were then called on to read excerpts of their submissions aloud to the school, and everyone was impacted by the insights, creativity, and talent that emerged. Mrs. Miriam Krohn, Associate Principal, Limudei Kodesh, concluded the event by describing how the survivors of the Holocaust were like the singular jar of pure olive oil found by the Chashmona’im, from which the reigniting of the light of Torah and k’dushah was made possible in both eras.
The winning entries were submitted by Mindy Firfer (first place), Penina Kurtz (second place), Aviva Keller and Sophia Ben-Baruch (third place). Honorable Mention awards were given to Tamar Elazar, Rikki Friedman, Sarah Gulamov, Chani Miller, and Shaindel Faiga Stahler. The awards include cash prizes and certificates, and all students who participated in the contest will be invited to submit their work to Shevach’s arts and literature journal, to be published later this year, b’ezras Hashem.
Learning about history is exceptionally powerful when we hear about it from those who were there. Shortly following Veterans’ Day, the ninth grade was privileged to hear from Mr. Joseph (Gene) Richter, a veteran of the Korean War and the proud grandfather of Mrs. Leah Hoenig, Shevach’s new librarian and teacher of the ninth grade elective course. Mr. Richter was a young man when he joined the US Navy and served on the 887-foot-long USS New Jersey (now a navy museum in Camden, New Jersey). While many aspects of Mr. Richter’s service were exceptionally challenging, he remained steadfast in his goal to proudly maintain his Jewish identity and commitment to Torah.
Mr. Richter spoke to the girls about making it through “boot camp,” being stationed out at sea for weeks on end, his responsibilities onboard the ship, the resiliency needed during combat, and especially what it was like to be one of just 30 Jews on a ship of 3,000 men. Mr. Richter described realizing his t’filin were missing and his efforts to procure a new pair, as well as the attempts made to have the items necessary for a Pesach seder while far out at sea. His commitment to keep kosher on the ship led to a very restricted diet, and at times he experienced anti-Semitism.
Mr. Richter was both inspiring and witty in his presentation. He shared his pride and joy that so many of his descendants are involved in Torah both in Eretz Yisrael and in America. Mr. Richter, who currently lives just a few blocks from Shevach, encouraged the students to respect others and not to count mitzvos, as he said, “Try to do more than you usually do!” Shevach is grateful to Mr. Richter for sharing his rich experiences and important life lessons.
While the children of survivors may not have directly experienced the catastrophic events of the Holocaust, they have been greatly impacted by their parents’ emotional and physical memories, pain, and dreams. On Friday, December 31, Mrs. Toby Weiss, in partnership with Project Lead and with the assistance of Mrs. Elia Cole, presented a gripping and unforgettable session to the Shevach seniors on the topic of the sensitivity required when engaging with survivors of the Holocaust as well as other life traumas. Mrs. Weiss has used her life experiences as well as her professional training to bring awareness and compassion to survivors in her work at MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care, and she will be receiving the 2022 Jewish Programming Award from the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
Mrs. Weiss shared her own personal experiences of growing up as a child of two Holocaust survivors. Mrs. Weiss’s childhood included times of joy but also confusion and silence, connection and loss. Mrs. Weiss’ parents, Chaya (Helen) and Gershon (Gary) Orbach a”h, originally from Lodz, Poland, suffered unimaginable horrors during the war, including the deaths of nearly all of their family members and intense emotional and physical suffering. They were married in the DP camp at Bergen-Belsen and had several children, one of whom was tragically killed in an accident a number of years later. After leaving Europe for the United States, the Orbachs settled in Paterson, New Jersey. Despite economic hardship, they were committed to sending their children to yeshivah, and the family now flourishes, baruch Hashem, both spiritually and physically in Eretz Yisrael and in the United States.
The students were very affected by Mrs. Weiss’s presentation and by the artifacts she brought with her, including photographs of her family, as well as a breathtaking original album created by the survivors in Bergen-Belsen in 1946. The album uses striking photographs and text to detail not only the devastation of the Jewish communities and families, but also the survivors’ courageous attempts to rebuild their lives after the war. As part of the twelfth grade’s course in Holocaust Studies, this special event deepened the students’ understanding of the war and survivors’ experiences through the story of an individual family. Mrs. Weiss’ poignantly combined messages on the importance of emunah and “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha.” The lessons Mrs. Weiss shared on the importance of withholding judgment, as well as interacting with sensitivity and patience while helping people who have experienced loss, will, b’ezras Hashem, invigorate and guide the students in their continued acts of chesed in the community and beyond.
Shevach High School looks forward to a spring semester, im yirtzeh Hashem, filled with even more events that increase our knowledge of the past, help us understand our present, and encourage us to build the best future possible.