Seeing your Jewish Community Through Different Eyes - Lesson Plan for Youth
This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Writing Home: A Letter from an early American Jew.”
Introduction to the Jewish Immigrant Experience
Read/handout the following journal entry, and ask students to guess who they thought wrote it, when it was written, and why.
There’s never been a better day than today.
Today we were invited to a synagogue by some volunteers we had met named Rose and Joyce. They came for us in a taxi and took us to this synagogue. I’ve never seen richer people than these, or nicer ones. I’ve never seen such enormous tables with white tablecloths and dishes of food that make the tables sag. What nice people these American Jews are.
Explain: The text is from a journal entry by Raimonda Koplnitsky, from April of 1990. She emigrated from Ukraine to the United States as a girl, and published a book, called No Words to Say Goodbye, about her experiences as an immigrant. (This excerpt originally came from an online version of her journal entry, which was formerly available on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society website.)
Tell your students that today we’re going to look at another letter by a Jewish woman who immigrated to America, this one from much earlier in America’s history. Ask students to consider:
- What can be interesting about an immigrant’s perspective of your country or community? What might they see that you don’t?
- Do you think you would have described your synagogue like Raimonda did? Why or why not?
Review a timeline of Jewish immigration to America. Put these dates on the board or ask students to help you do so:
- 1492: Expulsion of Jews from Spain
- 1654: First community of Jewish settlers arrive in New Amsterdam (New York)
- 1600s-1700s: Wave of Sephardic Jewish immigrants to America.
- In 1776 there were approximately 2,500 Jews living in America
- 1820-1880: Wave of German Jews to America
- In the 1820s there were approximately 6,000 American Jews; by 1880 there were approximately 280,000
- 1880-1929: Wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants
- By 1925 there were approx. 4,500,000 Jews in the U.S.
- According to the American Jewish Year Book, the 2012 estimate of U.S. Jewish population was between 5 and 6 million.
For a quick history of the first Jewish settlers in America, see pages 9-12 in JWA's Making Our Wilderness Bloom curriculum.
Rebecca Samuel, A Young Jew in America
Read Rebecca Samuel’s letter to her parents, describing life in Petersburg, Virginia in the 1790s. Locate the spot on your timeline around the time when Rebecca Samuel wrote her letter. You can also show your students this sketch of Charleston’s Beth Elohim synagogue.
Discuss the following questions with your students:
- What does Rebecca Samuel describe to her parents?
- What is she most surprised by, happy about, and concerned about in her new country?
- What do you find most interesting about her letter?
Ask your students to imagine that Rebecca Samuel traveled into the future and arrived today in your own Jewish community. Have your students write a letter pretending to be Rebecca Samuel to her parents, describing what she sees. Here are some prompts:
- What in your Jewish community would she be most surprised by?
- What would she be most excited about? What might sadden her?
- It might help to ask them to imagine Rebecca arriving at their synagogue on Shabbat or the High Holidays, or attending a Jewish community school or event.
- What do you think is most striking about how the Jewish community in America has changed since the first Jewish settlers?
- Imagine if you and your family had to move from your home to a different country. What would you miss the most? What would be the hardest thing about the transition? What would you wish for in your new home, in your new country? What kind of Jewish community would you hope to find?
Suggestions for Follow-up Activities
- Invite members of your community who immigrated to the U.S. in their lifetime to come and talk to your class about their experiences.
- Ask students to gather immigration stories from their own families.
- Research Jewish organizations that work with recent immigrants, or invite someone from these organizations to come and discuss their work.
Good websites to begin your exploration:
- The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society or HIAS, founded in 1881, which works to rescue and resettle refugees and advocate for and support migrants.
- The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization that creates policy regarding Jewish community relations with other groups. Once on their website, search for “immigrants and refugees” to read about their past work on behalf of immigrants and refugees.
- The American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU, which is not a Jewish organization, but has worked on behalf of Jewish communities on immigration issues as well as related issues of religious freedom.
Additional Lessons on Immigration from JWA
- Immigration and Generations: Anzia Yezierska's Children of Loneliness, another Go & Learn guide.
- Unit 1, Lesson 3 - Identity, Independence, and Becoming American Jews from the Labor Movement module of Living the Legacy, JWA's Jewish social justice education project.