When Deryn Klein, 11, a fifth-grade student at the GMLS San Diego Jewish Academy in California, started researching her heritage, she received what she described as a total shock.
“I found out my great-great-great-great-grandfather was the first rabbi in Palestine,” said Klein, referring to Avraham Wolfensohn, a Talmudic judge and leader of the Ashkenazi community in Safed, in the middle of the 19th century. “I feel like I know a lot more about my family because I never really paid attention before.”
Klein, along with more than 12,000 other kids from 76 Jewish institutions around the world, submitted artistic installations that captured their personal and family histories to “My Family Story,” an annual exhibit at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, run by the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies. The institution is funded by Israel’s Education Ministry as well as private donors and organizations, both in Israel and abroad. A panel of judges from the global Jewish community chose 36 winners from across the US, Israel, Latin America, Australia, Spain, and other countries, and the winners were flown to Israel for the exhibition ceremony last week.
The goal of the competition is to get both children and parents excited about their Jewish identity, according to Shelley Kedar, director of the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies. When the program began 17 years ago, Kedar said, creators were trying to find innovative ways to interest people.
“We found that the one thing people really like to do is talk about themselves,” Kedar said. “So we thought, why not have people research their own stories, and it can be something whole families can get involved in.”
In addition to the installations themselves, students must complete a family album in which they describe seven generations of family history, with pictures and detailed biographies of their ancestors.
For Roni Heimberg, 12, the first-place winner from the Yahalom School in Shoham, Israel, the project created a rare opportunity to find out about her father’s side of the family, many of whom spent years in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust.
Her father, Rami Heimberg, said he learned new things about his family through working with his daughter on the project.
“We did a lot of exploration where we looked at those years in Poland,” Heimberg said. “So those feelings were combined because I was learning things too.”
Heimberg’s winning project was a recreation of a small wooden train, similar to the ones used to transport people to the camps during the Holocaust. The left side represents her father’s dark and oppressed ancestry, while the right side represents her mother’s side, as they escaped from the Holocaust into Argentina, where they built a promising new life.
At the exhibition, winners from abroad were accompanied by their parents for the week-long trip to Israel. Funding for the program only covers airfare for the kids, so parents paid out of pocket to join.
The parents of Gianni Mizrahi, 10, the first-place winner from San Diego, said they wouldn’t have missed the chance to see their son accept a prize for his display of a large mosaic Chai — the Hebrew word for “life” — covered with little doors. When opened, the doors reveal short audio stories about his family.
“This was something really unique and different for me,” the boy said. “It made me think, ‘If this is just my family tree, I must be related to the entire world.’”