A Family Story: Celebrating our roots and connections

“All of us has a story that defines us and makes us realize we are part of a bigger picture. We are blessed to be part of the family of the Jewish people."

Yael Nisman; Haim Waitzman, San José, Costa Rica (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yael Nisman; Haim Waitzman, San José, Costa Rica
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“All of us has a story that defines us and makes us realize we are part of a bigger picture. We are blessed to be part of the family of the Jewish people,” says Yael Nisman from Costa Rica.
“This has been an unforgettable experience and I am truly grateful to have researched my roots, seeing how my own Druze community has contributed to the State of Israel. I hope when corona is over, I will be able to meet all the other students in person,” says Miras Saad from Kfar Yonarch.
Both Saad and Nisman took part in the “My Family Story” program run by The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot. This year’s virtual prize giving ceremony, on June 10, had a record 1000 participants on Zoom and Facebook – with families watching together at home, celebrating with their children.
Irina Nevzlin, chair of the board of directors of The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot and president of the NADAV foundation, says in her book, The Impact of Identity – The Power of Knowing Who You Are, “The starting point for building inner strength lies in connecting to your roots and your people - connecting with our roots and thereby engaging with questions such as who we are, where are we from and where do we belong, are central to living a meaningful life.
“To be part of the Jewish people gives you a very solid foundation to build your identity and a powerful network for life. This project is about learning that we are part of that network – it is only the start of the journey though.”
Nevzlin concluded, “This year, due to corona, that feeling of connectedness is crucial – our movement is limited and we are spending more time with our families. Now is the perfect opportunity to get closer to our loved ones and learn about our roots.”
Yael Rosen, director of the international programs department at the museum, spoke with The Jerusalem Report. “‘My Family Story,’ in memory of Manuel Hirsch Grosskopf, embodies the museum’s motto: “you are part of the story” – we each have our own personal story, and that story connects to a story much greater than us.
“Students research their family roots – create a world map with their family journeys, make a family tree, interview a grandparent or older family member – and then, in addition to delving into the past, decide how to tell their family story in a creative way. Each school submits selected works to an international competition, with the winning displays exhibited at the museum. It was started by Martha Mazo, 25 years ago, as an educational initiative in three schools in two countries. Since then it is run in communities in over 30 countries annually.”
When addressing why this program is unique, Rosen says, “I believe the invitation to explore your family roots is a gift. It is an experience that goes with the participants throughout life, and very often touches all family members. The program enables tens of thousands of families to receive this gift annually.
“Seeing all of the projects from a variety of communities and countries – from Paraguay to New Zealand, from the US to Belarus, arriving from flourishing Jewish communities around the world, is very exciting. The participants speak multiple languages – including Hebrew, English, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Portuguese and German – stretching across every time zone. It is amazing to see these Jewish stories come alive and be told in creative ways.”
Obviously, the program had to be run differently this year due to the coronavirus, but how did they adapt? Rosen explains, “Usually, we have an international gathering with all the winners of the program and Israeli participating schools at the museum, together with the exhibit opening.
“This year, since international travel and large gatherings are out of the question, we had to do something different. When having the ceremony on Zoom, it was important for us to have some of the students introduce themselves and share something personal from around the world.
“In a way, the simplicity of the online ceremony brought further power to the program. We were able to have the participating schools and families from around the world join – something that usually only the schools in Israel are able to do. It created a stronger sense of connection and equality. We’ve all had so much Zoom time lately – but not often do we have such a variety of countries and ages.”
Rosen makes special mention of how technology and social media was being used increasingly. “Students are using various technologies to create their displays – such as animation programming, editing apps and 3D printing, as well as modeling their displays after technological platforms: Waze, Instagram and more, telling their stories through these platforms.”
Although Rosen was impressed by all the students’ efforts, some made a real impression. “I loved the Waze creating according to the places and languages that the family went through. We had beautiful posters of a family’s story coming to Israel, a student presenting her on a family member surviving Operation Entebbe on film and also a 3D display on Soviet Jewry.”
“Also, I was especially struck by the educators from Australia and New Zealand throughout the year who would get up in the middle of the night to join the webinars and the final ceremony as well!”
A very strong aim of ‘The Family Story’ program is connecting students in the Diaspora with Israel and Israelis their own age. “The program starts with the individual – the students – and then connects them to their family, community, and people. They have pride in their families and see their family story tie into the greater story of the Jewish people.”
“Being part of a global program the students see the similarities and differences between their stories and Jewish stories around the world. They are part of an international Jewish program, based in Israel,” Rosen says.
At the end of the evening, a student in Russia sang “Hatikvah” with his grandmother playing the piano. “It was amazing,” Rosen says, “seeing the younger and older generation play and sing “Hatikvah” together, for an online ceremony based in Israel with connected with participants from Jewish schools around the world, was so meaningful.”
Rosen finished off by making the point that, as they worked with the Education Ministry, they were able to work with all Israeli schools and share different family stories from across Israeli society. “This year we had two winners from Druze schools. The students told their family stories and highlighted their connection with the State of Israel.”
At the end of the evening, there was a “Zoom selfie,” including many different types of Jews, from many countries, speaking many languages. “We hope this will inspire many more international online events for young Jews,” Rosen concluded.
The creativity of the students was outstanding. Their exhibits ranged from bookshelves, Monopoly and clothing, to music, Minecraft and ketubot.
Linatan Eldor, from Hod Hasharon, called her project, “All Routes to Israel,” tracing her families’ aliyah in different times and countries. Yonathan Agassi, from Petah Tikva, produced a moving exhibit, “Zichronot from the Ghetto,” where he traced back his family history through the years of the Holocaust. Other projects from Israeli students covered the Entebbe raid and aliyah from Yemen and Ethiopia.
Anna Moroz, from Russia, created a stunning exhibit, “The World of Jewish shtetels,” where she described the history of her family during the Holocaust. “There are many stories in my family history. The most dramatic is the story of the huppah - the wedding ceremony in the ghetto. During my research, I discovered information about my great-grandfather’s child who was murdered in the ghetto.”
“I never knew anything about this so I was very interested. While our relatives were murdered in the ghetto, two of my great-grandfather’s sons, Isaac and Simon, fought against the Nazis in the Red Army and returned at the end of the war with decorations and medals for bravery,” Moroz continued.
“When I completed the display, I realized how little I knew about my family’s rich history and that this research allowed me to learn new information about my relatives,” Moroz concluded.
Ella Barnett, from King David School, in South Africa, did a four-generational family tree of family going back to her great-grandfather on Instagram, tracing her family from Nazi Germany, to South Africa, but she emphasized that the connection to the State of Israel was central in her family.
“Am Yisrael Chai!” exclaimed Yael Nisman emotionally, as she presented her exhibit to the applause of her excited family, a summation of what the ‘My Family Story’ is all about. The contest was a powerful expression the students’ connection to their past and present, and therefore future, is strong and alive.
Yes, thanks to programs like “My Family Story,” all can join with Yael in calling out with pride “Am Yisrael Chai.”