In 1998, a group of students in Whitwell, Tenn., embarked on a mission to collect 6 million paper clips to represent the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust as they learned about it for the first time.
Nearly 20 years and more than 30 million collected paper clips later, the students have gained more than education — they also gained a friendship in Philadelphia. The teacher who started the Holocaust education program, Sandy Roberts, came to Har Zion Temple in 2011 for a program put together by Norman Einhorn, director of member engagement at Har Zion and director of Lower Merion Area Hebrew High.
A Philadelphia-area contingent traveled to Whitwell later that year — and have visited for the last six years.
In May 2017, a group from the Philly Friends of Paper Clips visited the Tennessee town. Over the weekend of Oct. 20, 47 students from the mostly Christian Whitwell came to Philadelphia where they climbed the “Rocky steps,” indulged in some Wawa and experienced a Shabbat weekend with host families.
“We’ve never experienced anything like that before,” noted Madison Gamble, a ninth-grader at Whitwell High School, of Shabbat services. “It was interesting to see how it all went.”
The weekend — which started with Friday night services at Beth Am Israel, followed by morning services at Har Zion Temple led by Cantor Lauren Levy of Beth David Reform Congregation, Havdalah services at Adath Israel and a breakfast program focusing on Holocaust survivors at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El — was, clearly, a collaborative endeavor.
“We had the biggest community effort that we’ve ever had in our project like this involving community synagogues,” Einhorn said. “Our kids saw that the silos can come down, and the Tennessee kids saw one cohesive community welcoming them together.”
In between Shabbat services, there was time for fun as well.
After an Oct. 21 afternoon of sightseeing landmarks like the Franklin Institute or the Liberty Bell with their hosts, the group bounced over to SkyZone for glow-in-the-dark trampoline fun. On Oct. 22, they completed some community service at Our Closet – Powered by JFCS, which provides free clothing for those in need and allows them to “shop” in pop-up boutiques across the city.
While in Whitwell in the spring, the Philly kids headed to the town’s only Save-A-Lot and shopped for items to stock the local food bank. Einhorn wanted to show there was need in the Philadelphia community as well.
At Our Closet, the students sorted coats from the stuffed bags of donations to prepare for the organization’s November winter coat drive.
“We wanted to make sure also that our guests here know that our community also has need,” Einhorn said, “and while the kids they stay with here may not be the recipients of that need, I want them to know that the kids here are tremendous donors and sponsors and supporters of that need. … That’s one of those universal messages that is important to make sure we don’t fall into stereotypes. We all have need; we all want to help each other.”
His ultimate goal is for the Whitwell and Philadelphia communities to go to Poland and Israel together through March of the Living. In the meantime, the communities will continue visiting each other.
At Our Closet, Whitwell High School students Kaitlin McCrary, 15, Morgan Green, 15, and Mariana Cortez, 16, sorted coats together and reflected on the weekend.
“It’s been a great experience,” Morgan said. “I feel like I gained a lot from it. Getting to meet people and getting to know how they experience their religion is just so mind-opening to me.”
“Just because you’re a different religion or practice different stuff, you can still get along,” noted Kaitlin.
Nearby, Bala Cynwyd Middle School eighth-graders Benji Weckstein and Josh Sultanik, who go to Beth Am Israel, echoed the value of togetherness.
“There’s all these bad things going on, people fighting. All this proves that we can work together,” said Benji, whose family hosted three Whitwell students.
“People can live without making fun of people’s differences,” Josh added.
For those who had been on the trip to Whitwell, it was a chance to see their new friends again face-to-face instead of over Snapchat, where they all added each other and on Facebook to keep in touch.
“When we went to Tennessee, we were more spending time seeing the town,” noted Anna Reisner, a freshman at Harriton High School who goes to Har Zion Temple.
While in Whitwell, the Philly group visited the Children’s Holocaust Memorial housed in an authentic German railcar once used to transport Jews that is now on the grounds of Whitwell Middle School.
On this trip, Anna continued, “we were taking them around but we also got to just spend time and get to know them.”
“It was a build-off of the relationship we already built,” added Hallel SimonHazani, a freshman at Harriton High School and a member of Har Zion. “Here, it was like, OK so we developed these friendships, now let’s push them, let’s make us feel more like a community. And it wasn’t about coming to see something, it was about being with them.”
For David Smith, then-associate principal and history teacher at Whitwell Middle School who also helped start the Holocaust education program and now principal at Whitwell Elementary School, the relationship the students in the two religiously different communities have built is one he hopes will continue to strengthen.
“We wanted them to see a culture that was different than Whitwell, which this is very much different,” he said, “yet even though we have this great difference and maybe socioeconomic [differences], as kids and as teenagers they’re still the same people.”
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