Ellis Island escapade brings Exodus home

Just before Pesach, the Foster City school transformed its large social hall into a miniature Ellis Island.

"We recreated Ellis Island because of Pesach," said Marit Shmargad, vice principal and head of Judaic studies, who organized the half-day event with Judaic studies teacher Sigal Kletter.

The goal was "to illustrate the hopes and fears of people who had to leave their counties because of various forms of slavery and oppression," she said.

Special attention was paid to detail, even down to the changing of names deemed impossible to pronounce by processing personnel.

"The kids came through check points to get entrance certificates," Shmargad said. "Names were called from those waiting on ships. We used computers to create a newspaper, the Ellis Island News, and we had newsboys selling them. We even had pretzels, a pickle stand and a cotton candy machine for our Coney Island — that's how authentic we tried to make it. The funny thing is, both [Kletter] and I are sabras, and had to create the Ellis Island illusion from what we read in books. But we've been told we came pretty close."

The experiment was apparently worthwhile.

"I want to make sure to tell my generation that we must learn the importance of freedom in order to make sure that slavery never happens again," said Paulina Polishchuk, a fifth-grader at the school, which has 135 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

First-grader Jeff Ware got some perspective on slavery. "People should not own each and should not fight," he said. "Instead, they have to respect each other's religion."

The purpose of the re-enactment, said Shmargad, was to create an appreciation for freedom and to point out that there is still much work to be done to ensure its benefits to everyone around the world.

"It's our duty still, in every generation to take part and not take freedom for granted," she said. "It's a very precious thing."

The lesson was not lost on fourth-grader Barry Rosekind.

"I learned how lucky we are to live in a country that can give a second chance," he said. "And as Jewish people who went through slavery, we should be responsible to teach the importance of freedom."

Shmargad agreed. "A passage in the Haggadah says that in every generation, every person must see himself as if he himself went out of Egypt."

Comparing the biblical Exodus to the exodus from Europe that brought millions to the shores of the United States was designed as a thought-provoking way to make the point.

"The response was just incredible," Shmargad said, "We did it with a lot of humor. There was a wonderful atmosphere in the room. We spent a lot of time preparing it, and I can tell you, it was worth it."

She said one of the teachers was sure that the kids at their own seder tables would certainly "remember the lesson we tried to teach about freedom.

"As an educator, we need to create memories in a child's life, so they can remember. You can teach all you want — kids will forget. It's the most important thing we do — to create memories. And I'm sure we created one."

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."