About 25 children ages 10 to 15 are piloting a new phase in a 20-year-old effort to spur conversations and creativity around Jewish family history.
“It was beshert,” said Shula Bahat, the CEO of Beit Hatfutsot of America, a support organization for the Israeli museum. She said she was meeting with the Breman last year when she got a phone call from the Covenant Foundation about a three-year, $10,000 grant.
The money enabled a pilot effort to expand My Family Story beyond Jewish day schools.
“The idea is to expose the program to kids who may not go to regular Jewish learning programs,” Bahat said. The Breman is first to test the program, and three other U.S. institutions will follow.
My Family Story celebrated its 20th anniversary last summer, Bahat said. It began in Latin America and has spread around the world, reaching the United States about four years ago.
Working with 150 institutions, the program involves as many as 25,000 students a year, Bahat said, but because it’s all about exploring and understanding family history, the program touches several times as many people as parents, grandparents and siblings share in the experience.
“My dream is to see it in every Jewish learning center,” Bahat said.
My Family Story has individual and collective benefits, according to Bahat and Ghila Sanders, the Breman community engagement manager who is working on the pilot project.
Participants learn all about where they come from, then create individual art projects that represent their family stories. Hundreds of those works are submitted to Beit Hatfutsot for an annual competition, and dozens of winners make the trip to the museum. Gathered together, the projects tell a bigger story about the history of the Jewish people.
That story is universal, Bahat said. “That’s why I think it’s such a powerful program.”
The plan is to submit two of the Atlanta projects to the international competition, but the version of My Family Story being tested here has differences. Most significantly, the students are working with a creative writing teacher, Evelyn Walsh, to create a written element that is new to My Family Story, as is the collective project the participants will produce in addition to their individual works.
Sanders said the Breman is excited not only about this pilot year, but also about the long-term future of My Family Story in Atlanta. “This is an opportunity to bring in families from lots of different parts of the Jewish community, including the unaffiliated. They’re all parts of the mosaic Beit Hatfutsot is putting together.”
Over the course of six gatherings that began Jan. 10 and will conclude April 17 with a showcase of the projects, the students will learn how to think like anthropologists, how to conduct interviews, how to label artifacts, and how to tell stories with words and images, including videos. The students also will spend hours at home between those sessions to talk to relatives, explore photos and documents, and look for items that represent them.
Artist Karin Mervis will guide them through their art projects, but Bahat emphasized that the creativity comes from the youths.
The pilot incorporates top Breman talent, including Jeremy Katz, the director of the Cuba Family Archives, and Aaron Berger, the executive director. The Breman is working with Congregation Shearith Israel, which Sanders said is the right synagogue partner because of its location, educational programs and experience with My Family Story through the religious school a few years ago.
“We’re really thrilled to be partnering with Beit Hatfutsot on this project because it brings together everything the Breman is all about,” Sanders said.
The program’s second session is Sunday, Jan. 31, and Sanders said interested families can still get involved by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 678-222-3700. Children who missed the first session will likely get a crash course to catch up.
“It’s an unbelievable responsibility on the part of Beit Hatfutsot and for that matter the Breman,” Bahat said, “but it’s a responsibility that we gladly undertake because we know that we can make a difference.”