Today, at the JCS of Ann Arbor, I was privileged to take part in a reenactment of the Ellis Island experience, as follows:
For millions of immigrant families, Ellis Island represented the last hurdle that needed to be overcome on the long journey to America. Ellis Island was a place of hope for, after long and often difficult struggles, the New World was in sight; but at the same time, it was a place of fear and desperation, because individuals or families could be refused admittance and sent back. It was an important part of the American Jewish experience. On May 6th, 2012, the students, parents and faculty of the JCS of Ann Arbor staged a reenactment of the Ellis Island experience as a capstone to the 2011-2012 school year.
Students, along with some parents, were given packets including biographies. The biography that you drew determined your economic and professional status, what language your spoke and whether you had an American sponsor. Assuming the roles of immigrants seeking admittance from Europe, students had to negotiate their ways through a series of checkpoints, manned by officials. In order to gain acceptance to America, each immigrant had to pass through the Immigration station, be checked and passed by Medical, get the help of the person at the Hebrew Immigration Aid Station (HIAS) and finally have their Passport stamped. If any official wanted to, they could have an immigrant pulled off the line and sent to Detention or sent back to the country of origin. Officials could even change a person’s name depending on what they heard or to make it sound “more American.” It took all a person’s wits to negotiate, cajole and sometimes bribe your way through.
The reenactment was a great success, with students discussing afterwards how it gave them a real feel for the experiences of their forbearers. A light lunch was served afterwards, including traditional Jewish foods. As a final part of the day’s activities, students were given hand-outs of Famous Jews Who Changed Their Names (Jack Benny was born Benny Kubelsky, Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz and Kirk Douglas started life as Issur Danielovitch Demsky) and a glossary of Yiddish words and phrases. They learned that it took a certain amount of chutzpah to get through Ellis Island and if you weren’t careful, you could find yourself in real tsuris!
Thanks go out to JCS Principal Wendy Sadler for putting together such a great and educational program. For more information about this or any other JCS program, please visit the website at http://jewishculturalsociety.org/ or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org or in person at the JCS offices at 2935 Birch Hollow Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48108.