Historical Society’s hands-on sessions teach kids about Michigan Jewish history.

By Louis Finkelman

Photos by Jessica Barris

To acquaint young students with the stories of the first Jewish settlers in Michigan, Tova Schreiber, an educator with the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, unpacks props: a cardboard model canoe, wooden paddles, false fur hats and more.

The sixth-graders at Temple Beth El enact parts of the trip Ezekiel Solomon and Chapman Abraham made around 1760. Those young men, immigrants from Germany to Montreal, took the long canoe trip supplying goods such as guns and whiskey to the fur-trading posts and British forts in Michigan, and then paddled back to Montreal in time for Rosh Hashanah each year.

Every few minutes, Schreiber varies the instructions, so students reflect on the experiences of those first settlers and present their stories to the group and compare the stories with their own family histories.

At one point, the students play “Iz mir! Nu?” Given a card with information about an early Jewish settler in one of several dozen Michigan places, students prepare to reply to the place name by calling out “Iz mir!” (“That’s me!” in Yiddish), to which the class replies, “Nu?” (Yiddish for something like “Tell me more”), and the student responds with a brief biography of his or her character.

Schreiber is one of five teachers who bring Michigan Jewish history alive through the Traveling Trunk, a series of four class sessions sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and taught at more than 10 Jewish schools in Detroit and Ann Arbor.

After class, Schreiber says, “It is all experiential learning: activities, role playing, games, props from the trunk, costumes for the teachers. Each student has a journal that points to sources for further study.”

The journal also invites students to involve their own family to explore how they fit into the big picture.

Tova Schreiber teaches about Michigan Jewish history using Traveling Trunk materials.

Developing the Course

That hands-on orientation is no accident. Dr. Cheryl Blau designed the curriculum using top educational methods. Blau, in addition to her decades of experience as a teacher, has earned a master’s degree in humanistic psychology and a doctorate in education. At one point, she taught each of the four sessions in each participating school.

As the program grew, Blau needed to delegate the teaching. With the help of enthusiastic, talented teachers Lori Lasday, Schreiber, Ilene Lee and Dalia Keen, she could serve as their resource. This year, with her own children older, Blau has resumed a part-time teaching role.

Each presenter brings her own talents to the curriculum. Schreiber says: “I am a music addict, so I make sure to provide musical accompaniment to each session with the music appropriate for the time period in question. I use Spotify to bring the period music to the program. For example, I use Klezmer from Dave Tarras to accompany the Eastern European immigration story. Later, I play Nina Simone singing Eretz Zavat Halav” (a Hebrew song extolling the land of Israel, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” Deuteronomy 26:9).

This curriculum has its own interesting history. Catherine Cangany, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, says a decade ago, the JHSM curated bus tours of Jewish Detroit for religious schools called “Settlers to Citizens.”

They learned that for students to appreciate the actual places where the events occurred, they needed to already know about the events. Wendy Rose Bice, then JHSM executive director, got support from the Metro Detroit Board of Jewish Educators to develop a curriculum for these pre-tour history lessons.

Bice called on Blau to develop the curriculum. Blau prepared an extensive repertoire of materials to involve students in four sessions on the history of Jews in Michigan. Blau still considers this a work that “continues to evolve.”

Students find sites on historic maps of Jewish Detroit. Jessica Barris

Recurring Jewish Values

As she wrote the curriculum, Blau discovered that a few central Jewish values recur in each period of Jewish settlement in Michigan — Jews took care of their co-religionists and took responsibility for the general welfare of the broader society.

For a striking example, in the second session, retrieving events from years leading up the Civil War, students learn that Mark Sloman and his wife, Amelia, hosted a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved individuals escape across the river into Canada.

A Jewish clothing manufacturer, Emil Heineman of Detroit donated new suits of clothing to help these people make a new life. His wife, Fannie Heineman, initiated many social projects, including helping to found Children’s Hospital.

When the war began, the 151 Jewish families in Michigan in the 1860s (half in Detroit) sent more than 180 men and boys to the Union fighting forces, an average of more than one per family.

In the third session, students learn about the many social service agencies often initiated by Michigan-born Jews to help immigrants from Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The Traveling Trunk curriculum operates for grades 4-7 in 10 congregational religious schools in the area. In recent years, participating schools have included Temples Israel, Shir Shalom, Beth El, Kol Ami and Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Farber Hebrew Day School, Congregations Shaarey Zedek, Adat Shalom, B’nai Moshe/Beth Ahm and Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, and Temple Emanu-El/Congregation Beth Shalom.

Canagany hopes to expand the program to religious schools in Grand Rapids and throughout the state.

The educators who present Traveling Trunk have great enthusiasm for the project. People ask Schreiber, given her other demanding jobs with Jewish youth (with Beth Ahm, Motor City USY and Central Region USY), how she has time for the Traveling Trunk curriculum. Her answer is, “I don’t. But this is such a cool thing that I have to do it.”

People also ask if there really is a trunk. There are. Three for the four class sessions, each packed with materials. The original plan certainly included an old-fashioned steamer trunk, but that turned out to be impractically heavy. Plastic storage tubs are much more practical.

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