City students learn history, understanding in Lloyd Street Synagogue


March 19, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Inside the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the third oldest Jewish synagogue building in the country, Emmy Mogelinsky, a purposeful woman with a strong carriage and face, asks a group of mostly black middle school students if they have ever heard of the Holocaust.

Hands do not go up. "It is a period in Germany when Hitler did his darnedest to wipe out all the Jews. All of them!" she explains.

Mrs. Mogelinsky, a Holocaust survivor herself, gives a passionate thumbnail sketch of the Third Reich. It was "supposed to last 1,000 years. It lasted 12 years," she says. "Think of what that man did."

Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, those with physical disabilities were slaughtered, she says.

As were the few black people in Germany at the time, Mrs. Mogelinsky added. "Why? He was going to build a master race of people who were to have blond hair and blue eyes."

The students, from Herring Run Middle School, listen and stir slightly. They do not reveal their feelings upon learning this information. It is not clear how much registers.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Mogelinsky perseveres. In a fractious world where hate mongering and racial intolerance often are a part of public dialogue, her lesson is one tiny attempt to introduce a small group of black school children to a culture they know little about. It is also a way to show how much in common they have with Jews, she says; both have endured a legacy of slavery and racism.

"Rather than learn Judaism out of a text book, let them come and see and feel," she says.

The program, funded by the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund and the John F. Leidy Fund, has brought several Baltimore City school classes to the Lloyd Street Synagogue since January. The program will continue through this school year.

As the children enter the synagogue, their teacher, Lonese Rook, admonishes, "All right, guys, remember, hats off." They enter the 1845 structure and the lesson begins. "Good morning, or, how about shalom," suggests docent Ellie Gumnit, a vigorous, animated woman accustomed to teaching children and adults.

She asks the students if they know other Hebrew words. "Mazel tov," a student offers. She is lauded by Mrs. Gumnit for understanding the Hebrew phrase for good luck.

"What is this building called?" she asks.

"A church?"

No, it is a synagogue. "It is very much like a church. This is where Jewish people come to pray," Mrs. Gumnit says.

"Do Jewish people believe in God?"

"Yes, we do," Mrs. Gumnit says.

To help the children identify with their Jewish peers, a bar mitzvah, the traditional rite of passage for 13-year-old Jewish boys and girls, is simulated. "It is a coming of age, not about adulthood, not an ending of

study. It is a time when a young person takes his or her role in the community," Mrs. Gumnit says. She speaks from the reading table in the synagogue's center, where rabbis last read from the torah, the first five books of the Bible, in the 1950s.

The visiting students, clothed in coats of many colors, and sporting sparkly bouffants, fades and athletic shoe emblems buzzed into their scalps, follow their guides to the back of the synagogue. There, the ark, a kind of cabinet, contains the "holiest things Jews have," Mrs. Mogelinsky says. Several torahs are kept within, including a torah covered with mattress ticking in remembrance of the uniform concentration camp inmates were forced to wear. This torah once belonged to a Prague synagogue desecrated and dismantled by Hitler.

As the students move through the synagogue, their guides speak on righteousness, the Jewish concept for charity. "No matter how poor you may be, there is someone who is poorer than you. It doesn't matter what race, religion, what anything. It is an act of righteousness to help these people," Mrs. Mogelinsky says. "It is the highest form of righteousness to prevent people from becoming poor."

Later, as Mrs. Gumnit describes the mikvah, the ritual bath where Baltimore's Jews once immersed

themselves, a student who up until now, appeared to be dozing, asks, "So if I wanted to get Jewish, I could get Jewish?"

"You would have to study very hard," Mrs. Gumnit says.

A sample of matzo, the unleavened Jewish bread, leaves several students sputtering at its dry taste. Then, Mrs. Mogelinsky and Mrs. Gumnit ask the students to form a circle. "We're going to teach you a dance." Soon, the students are awkwardly doing the hora, a joyful traditional dance performed at bar mitzvah parties and other Jewish celebrations. "Pick it up, come on!" Mrs. Mogelinsky shouts.

For student Yolanda Lewis, this nutshell exposure to another culture is a revelation. "I didn't know they were slaves because they're not our color," she says.

Her classmate, Delicia Crockett, found the visit interesting, "Because it showed that Jewish people express themselves like we express ourselves."

For Mrs. Mogelinsky, this visit is not as satisfying as others have been: The students were not as well prepared and did not ask the probing questions she has learned to expect. But it is a promising start. "I always have faith in children," she says. "If you treat them right, they will become decent people."

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