PLEASANTVILLE — Seated in the library at the Leeds Avenue School, kindergarten, first- and second-grade students eagerly twirled their noisemakers at the direction of Rabbi Shalom Ever when he spoke the name, Haman.
Ever, of the Rodef Shalom Synagogue in Atlantic City, retold the story of Purim, which he described as the Mardi Gras of the Jewish faith.
Purim, which begins Monday and ends Tuesday, is a celebration commemorating the salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation by the Persian Empire’s prime minister, Haman, thanks to God and the secretly Jewish Persian queen, Esther.
The Leeds Avenue School event was organized by second-grade teacher Tamar LaSure-Owens, who with a team of fellow teachers and the support of her principal, is working toward incorporating Holocaust curriculum into the district.
“Our students didn’t know who or what a rabbi was,” LaSure-Owens said. “We wanted to show we’re aware, we have respect.”
She said it also creates empathy and tolerance in the children, and provides historical context for the Holocaust.
“What other way could you fit it in without bringing in Jewish culture,” LaSure-Owens said.
LaSure-Owens received praise at this year’s New Jersey Education Association Convention in Atlantic City for her work to teach and promote the Amistad Curriculum. She is now working to incorporate the Holocaust Curriculum into the school district. Both curriculums are state-mandated, although many schools are still working to find ways to integrate them into existing lessons.
“History is whole. It’s not separate cultures doing this or that,” she said. “So we want to show that.”
“We celebrate because the decree happened to Haman and not the Jewish people in Persia,” Ever said.
Ever brought with him a megillah, or scroll, that tells the story of Purim and traditionally celebratory items like triangle-shaped pastries called Hamantaschen and the noise makers, called graggers.
He spoke to small groups of students in 15-minute increments. In total, 300 students received the lesson Tuesday.
“I think as all the politicians are saying, we need to educate the children,” Ever said between presentations. “We should know about each other’s ethnicities and religions.”
Gail Rosenthal, director of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University, said lessons like this help unite people and make the world smaller.
“It’s important to learn about others, so that when we look at the history of genocides from the past and unfortunate genocides that are happening today, much of it is based upon hatred, man’s inhumanity to mankind. It’s about ‘the other,’” she said.
She said it comes down to the question of “who is your neighbor?”
“Where is your universe of obligation? And so when those clergy members who are invited to come to classes to speak about their religions, it’s an excellent educational tool because all of a sudden, ‘the other’ becomes ‘my neighbor,’” Rosenthal said.