Inspired by Theodor Herzl’s famous saying, “If you will it, it is no dream,” three Chicago area synagogues made Christmas wishes come true last week for 460 students at a local public school named for the Zionist movement founder.
In an effort spearheaded by director of congregational learning Lori Sagarin at Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Illinois, members of her congregation, along with members of Am Shalom of Glencoe and Lakeside Congregation in Highland Park, donated and delivered nearly $10,000-worth of holiday presents to the Herzl School of Excellence in North Lawndale. There was a gift for each and every student at the PreK-8 school.
A crew representing many Jewish secret Santas arrived on December 18 with two truckloads of individually gift-wrapped, anonymously-given toys and books. Hundreds of dollars in teacher supplies were also gifted to the school.
“I think it’s awesome,” one preteen girl said in a an ABC video news report filmed as the children opened the festively decorated packages.
Members of the congregations reportedly were moved to give so generously after hearing the students’ modest lists for Santa. Some had asked for a mere $10 McDonald’s gift card.
In a message to the Beth Israel community, Sagarin emphasized the Jewish religious imperative to help those less fortunate, and that “giving to others is by far more rewarding than receiving.”
In the ABC video, excited children are seen unwrapping items including remote-control cars, dolls, sports equipment, and much more.
ABC reporter Ravi Baichwal, moved by this story, also posted video he took with his own smartphone as he observed the kids receiving their presents. “Boy oh boy my heart is breaking watching this,” he wrote on Facebook.
The distance between the Herzl School, on Chicago’s West Side, and the synagogues on the North Shore did not give the gift givers pause.
“Our role as a congregation is to help whoever is in need and that doesn’t mean they have to be in our backyard, and teaming up with children has a special meaning for the children of the congregation, too,” said Joanna Lewis, a Beth Israel congregant.
The Herzl School is what is known as a “turnaround school.” It is a public school operated by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a Chicago nonprofit school management organization “that creates schools of excellence by developing highly effective teachers and transforming educational outcomes for students in the lowest performing schools,” according to the school’s website.
Although the school’s neighborhood is now virtually entirely African-American, it was once was home to a large percentage of the city’s Eastern European Jewish immigrants. It was because of the Jewish flavor of the area at the time the school was built in 1915 that it was named for the founder of political Zionism. With its Greek-influenced architecture, it is considered one of Chicago’s historic school buildings.
The connection between Temple Beth Israel and the Herzl School can be traced to David Matlow, the owner of the world’s largest private collection of Theodor Herzl memorabilia. Matlow, a Toronto attorney, became aware of the Herzl School — as well as other connections between the Zionist leader and Chicago — through his collecting efforts.
“Things started popping up in my collection from the school. The first item was a decal for the Herzl Huskies, a school team, then yearbooks and pins. I checked online to see what the school was, and to my surprise, it still existed under that name,” Matlow told The Times of Israel.
Matlow, who currently owns exactly 5,001 pieces of Herzl memorabilia, made a film about Herzl together with Israeli filmmaker Eli Tal-El. When the film, titled, “My Herzl” was screened in Chicago in 2013, Matlow and Tal-El made a special visit to the Herzl School to meet with its eighth graders.
Matlow has returned to the school every year since to talk to the students about Herzl and his legacy. This year, Matlow donated a portrait of Herzl that hangs in the school’s library. The visit coincided with the marking of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, which provided an opportunity to highlight thematic similarities between Herzl’s “If you will it, it is no dream” and King’s “I have a dream” speech.
“Herzl continues to be relevant today… Herzl teaches us that anything is possible. He inspires us to use our skills and talents to help the causes we care about. At the Herzl School, they speak of Herzl as an activist who, like Martin Luther King, was determined to improve the condition of his people,” Matlow said.
The holiday toy drive resulted from Sagarin’s having become aware of the Herzl School from a write-up of Matlow’s 2016 visit by Michael Soberman, senior educational consultant at the Chicago-based iCenter for Israel Education.
“It is because the school is named after Herzl that the two communities found each other,” Matlow said.
According to Matlow, this coming March, the eighth grade students from the Herzl School will join eighth graders from Beth Israel and other Chicago area Jewish schools for a tour of the North Lawndale neighborhood to learn about its Jewish past. The children will also visit sites related to the current local community, as well as other groups who have lived in the area over the last century.
As the holiday presents were opened, Herzl School teacher Grace Swock said the lesson for the children was that “people that don’t even know them care so much about them.”
“There is so much that divides people these days. When we find something or someone that brings us together, even if it is the name of a person, we should celebrate it, nurture it, and use it as an opportunity to appreciate that we all have more in common than what separates us,” said Matlow.