Celebrating Our Heritage – Hillel Yeshiva’s 2024 Jewish Heritage Fair

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Victor Cohen 

Last month, Hillel Yeshiva hosted its annual Seventh Grade Jewish Heritage Fair, which showcased the work the seventh grade class did to research their individual family histories. In preparing for the heritage fair, these seventh graders not only learned about their family backgrounds,  they also learned to appreciate and embrace their unique ancestry. For a community like ours, which is built upon the value of understanding what has come before, this program acts as a brilliant way for students to delve into the world of their ancestors and to develop a strong sense of pride for their heritage. 

Mrs. Sally Cohen is the director of the Sephardic Heritage Program in Hillel’s Middle and High Schools. She explained that the fair  was “a culmination of a year’s long work by the seventh grade class, researching their personal family stories of where they came from, and how they began life in a new country.” 

The Heart of Our Heritage – Our Families 

The students’ work was showcased that night, with detailed family trees, write ups of the historical origins of the students’ family names, transcripts of conversations with grandparents or great-grandparents, and even family artifacts – some dating as far back as the 1700s! Those attending could clearly see the students’ effort, passion, and care they put into these projects. The night was a true celebration of our beautiful Sephardic heritage. 

According to Mrs. Cohen, Hillel’s Heritage Program was created by the former Jewish Heritage teacher, Mrs. Susan Rishty, who oversaw it for over 25 years. As a former Hillel student,  I personally felt the impact of Mrs. Rishty’s program, which influenced my outlook on my own family’s history. I remember the conversations I had with my grandfather about his grandfather when I was at Hillel. And I even remember my family artifact – my great-grandfather’s tefillin. 

A Night to Remember 

The event took place in Hillel Yeshiva’s Founders Hall. The location was especially fitting, as the hall was dedicated in honor of Hillel Yeshiva’s three founders: Saul Ashkenazie, Ely Ashkenazie, and Morris Franco. When visitors first walked in they saw the walls were draped with flags from Israel, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain, Russia, Tunisia, and Poland, all countries where students’ ancestors lived. 

Past the flags was a section dedicated to familiar foods alongside their international origins. There were rugalach from Hungary, macarons from France, baby kaak from Lebanon, and adjweh from Syria to name a few. 

Lovingly Displayed Artifacts 

Close by were the students’ family artifacts, set up museum style with the artifacts and family heirlooms accompanied by identifying information. The students collected the items that were displayed while researching their family histories. The items were lovingly brought in order to showcase them as proud symbols of the students’ families unique family journeys. The students themselves were adorned with emblems noting their representative countries, and all the students stood behind their artifacts as curators of their very own mini museums. 

The artifacts were sorted according to categories, and included items such as siddurim, megillot, Kiddush cups, antique kitchen tools, and Shabbat candle sticks. One student even brought in an oud from Syria, which is a stringed instrument similar to a guitar. Another student brought in a darbuka, which is a goblet-shaped drum. Others brought photos and documents from their ancestors. 

On to the Speeches 

After a short reception, visitors were ushered into the Gindi Auditorium for the next part of the program.  

The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Saul Kassin, opened by illustrating the impact learning about one’s heritage can have. He said, “It is very important to know where you come from, so that you can tap into who you are – your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. There are so many things that they have done in their lives to build the life you have today. When you look back at who they were, you yourself will learn how you want to continue the great legacy of the Jewish people.” Hillel’s Principal, Rabbi Katz, spoke next, and noted his admiration for the care our community possesses concerning our past. He was happy to learn of the deep rootedness of our community’s history and felt proud to know that this knowledge would be transmitted to the next generation. Especially at such a young age, this outlook is an important trait to instill, and will help to create our leaders of the future. 

 Mrs. Cohen’s older brother, Sammy Saka, spoke about the importance of “learning from our history,” and said, “We came from humble beginnings. Let us never forget that.” He turned to Mrs. Cohen, and said that their father, Mr. Charles Saka, a”h, would be proud of the work she has done tonight. Regarding the future, he gave a strong message. “We must teach our heritage to our children.” 

Rabbi Ike Hanon recited the Mi Shebereach for the Israeli soldiers. Then, the Middle School Principal, Mrs. Eidelman, spoke. She said that the program was always her favorite event of the year, and expressed admiration for Mrs. Sally Cohen. “You need the right type of person to teach this type of program. You have to know the heritage, you have to know the community history, and you have to be very passionate about giving it over and also be a very good teacher.” 

Mrs. Cohen then spoke, thanking everyone who made the night possible. She also spoke about her father, Mr. Charles Saka, a”h, thanking him “for instilling in me a passion and love for our community’s rich history and traditions.” Quoting him, she continued, “We are standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before us and it is our responsibility to build upon their efforts for the next generation.” 

Mrs. Cohen described what the seventh graders learned. “They learned about what life was like there – what languages were spoken, what kind of foods were eaten, and the difference between the total Jewish population from then until now. 

“We then discussed entry to America, why they left their countries, how they came, and who came with them…They watched the process many of their ancestors went through in order to be granted entry into America.” 

This night, she said, “is a testament to their visions of creativity, inspiration, and focus.”  

A few of the students spoke, mainly talking about how much they learned and how much they were surprised to learn. One student, David Dayan, said, “When we first started I thought I already knew everything about my family. But as the year went on, I realized how much I had yet to learn.” 

Project Displays 

After the speeches, Mrs. Cohen directed everyone to area where the projects were displayed. Included were the family trees, transcripts of the interviews with elderly family members, and name documents. 

The family trees were designed to connect to what the students have learned about their families. One student found that members of his family used to sell Turkish coffee, so he included coffee stains in his tree’s design. Another student, with Egyptian heritage, made his family tree in the shape of a pyramid! 

As part of their projects, students interviewed elderly family members about life in a different time, asked why they are proud to be an American Jew, and asked for any advice to give to future generations. One interviewee boiled down a lifetime of lessons into two sentences. “Always be happy. Hashem does everything for the good.” The students took these interviews, and the gems of knowledge from them, and included them in framed biographies, which included the pictures of those they interviewed. 

What’s in a Name?  

One of the topics students addressed was where does your name come from? The students researched the meaning of their names in English, Hebrew, and sometimes Arabic. One student, Isaac, found that the meaning of his name in Hebrew came from the word to laugh. He connected this to his own life by recognizing that he brings laughter to his family.  

The students also looked into who they were named after, and how that relative connects to them in some way. If they were not named after any of their relatives, they researched why they were given their name. 

Recommended Reading to Learn About Our Heritage 

Treasuring and learning about our heritage is a way to maintain our values and traditions. Community programs such as a Jewish Heritage Fair are a wonderful and creative way to help to keep our rich and beautiful heritage alive for the next generation. Here are Mrs. Cohen’s book recommendations for anyone interested in learning about our community’s esteemed history.  

  1. Men of Faith and Vision by Sam Catton, a”h: This trilogy goes through the early history of our community, the building of Synagogue Magen David of 67th Street, and records the lives of visionaries and leaders from our past, such as Isaac Shalom, Hacham Matloub Abadi, and Rabbi Jacob Kassin. 
  2. Nouri – The story of Isidore Dayan, and the growth of a vibrant community in America by Devora Gliksman: This book follows Mr. Isadore “Nouri” Dayan’s influential life within the community. It also follows the spiritual leaders of the time, the Masalton’s, and the esteemed Bibi family, as well as the development of the Ahi Ezer community.