Paper Clips Project Trip - Student Reflections
A Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Youth Program
Seven young members of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue joined youth from Beth Tzedec Synagogue on a February 2011 trip to Whitwell, Tennessee (population 1,600) to experience the Whitwell Middle School’s Paper Clips Project and Children’s Holocaust Memorial. Here are some of their reflections, spoken from the Beth Emeth Synagogue pulpit on the Shabbat following their return home.
I experienced tolerance in a whole new way over the 2011 Family Day weekend. Together with thirty-eight other teens, five staff members and one enthusiastic bus driver, we travelled to Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Georgia and on to Whitwell, Tennessee.
For me, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, this was an experience that I will never forget. My first impression of the Whitwell Middle School was…I don’t usually pull into a school and see an authentic German transport rail car. The experience of walking up the ramp of the cattle car was powerful and overwhelming.
Whitwell Middle School has no Jews, nor does the town. So why did they do what they did? I think they did it to demonstrate tolerance. This makes me think very optimistically of our world. You meet the kids in Whitwell and you have hope, because you know that there are people who care for the human race, and understand their responsibility to it. That is what I took back from this trip.
I thought this trip would show me how people in a small town in the southern United States learned about the Holocaust, but I realized the message was about tolerance of all races and cultures. This hit home during a discussion between Rabbi Adam Cutler of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue and Andre Ivory, Youth Director of Beth Tzedec Congregation. Rabbi Cutler asked Andre, an African- American who converted to Judaism while in university, about his experiences with discrimination, both as a Jew and as a black man. Their discussion really opened my eyes to the importance of being tolerant of everyone.
We also had the wonderful opportunity to meet Andre’s mother, Ruth Ivory. She took time out of her life to fly from Phoenix to Atlanta to talk to our group about her life and her involvement with the civil rights movement in the United States. Mrs. Ivory organized and participated in sit-ins and nonviolent protests and even marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. It was eye-opening to actually meet someone who participated in the things we were learning about.
Of the 30 or 40 binders of messages that were sent to the Paper Clips Project, there is only one binder of negative comments. The negative binder had lots of different points in it. Some were anti-Semitic; things like “the Holocaust never happened” and “I hope your project fails.” However, there were other notes that I questioned: I was not sure if they belonged with the negative notes. I think they should have gone to a binder of their own, with the heading of Suggestions. One of the notes said, “Why did you choose the Holocaust? There are so many other causes that you can relate to, and even if you were choosing a genocide, why the Holocaust? The Holocaust killed 6 million Jews; however, there are numerous other genocides that have killed over 40 million people.” For me, this just confirmed the importance of the Paper Clips Project as a way to teach and promote tolerance. In my mind, it is an enormous success.
This trip taught me that the African-American communities in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were very similar to those of the Jews during the Holocaust. Neither culture had rights; they were not considered any better than pests, and they were treated inhumanely. By learning about the Holocaust, black slavery, segregation, homophobia, women’s rights protests and other discriminations towards people, I understood this: human beings should all be treated equally, no matter what colour, shape, gender, or religion. This trip taught me to treat others how we want to be treated, and that no good comes from hate.
I picked up a handful of paper clips from the interactive display in Whitwell Middle School's main exhibit - a boxcar that transported Jews to the concentration camps. As I put the paper clips back on the pile, one at a time, I understood that each paper clip represented a unique person with their own story. I realized that those people who saved a handful of Jews may not have had a large impact on the Holocaust as a whole, but it was a huge impact for those unique people who were saved.
I was struck by how many people took the time to send in a paper clip. For each person, it might have been a small task. But when the community combines and each person does one small thing, a wonderful result, such as the Paper Clips Project, can be achieved. I think this must have been the feeling of the Israelites in the recent Parshat Pekudei when the community came out to donate items that ultimately resulted in the building of the Mishkan.
I hope we can all learn that, while one person can make a difference, it takes the involvement of the whole community to make it really special.
Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue and Beth Tzedec Synagogue are members of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto Large Synagogue Council.