Two yellow school buses pulled away from the Theodor Herzl Public School in North Lawndale, a suburb of Chicago. It was a Friday morning in March, and on those buses were students from the Herzl School and from Temple Beth Israel of Skokie, a very different suburb of Chicago. They were embarking on a journey together to learn about the neighbourhood: once the thriving centre of Chicago’s Jewish community and now a predominantly African-American one, with many low income families.
Theodor Herzl, the visionary of the State of Israel, brought the two groups together.
In 1915, a new public school was opened in North Lawndale and, at the request of the local Jewish community, it was named in honour of Herzl who had died 11 years before. A century has passed, the population has changed, but the name of the school has not. With the passage of time, North Lawndale became a distant memory for the Jews of Chicago, and the current residents of the area did not realize the strong Jewish roots that were set down there. All that has now changed.
Our student travelers learned there were once 100 synagogues within one mile of the Herzl school; Golda Meir lived two blocks away and worked in the local library; at another time Martin Luther King Jr. lived around the corner; the headquarters of Sears and Roebuck was nearby and employed 20,000 residents; Sears’ Chairman Julius Rosenwald contributed to the construction of 5,000 schools and other facilities in the Southern United States and built the local YMCA which is still in operation; the Jewish People’s Institute (now a public school) was the centre of the community with a rooftop dance floor and a bowling alley; and the Marks Nathan Jewish Orphans Home was home to as many as 300 orphans including world champion boxer Barney Ross.
Traveling on this journey together, the two groups effectively merged into one as they saw how the Jewish and African-American histories of the area are intertwined. The students in both groups admire Theodor Herzl for his determination to improve the future of his people (for the Herzl School students, in the same spirit as Dr. King). Moreover, they all discovered that as much as their lives are different, there is much that is the same.
The group heard from Bishop Derrick Fitzpatrick, Pastor of Stone Temple Baptist Church (located in what the former synagogue building of the First Roumanian Congregation), that if you have a dream you can make it happen. He invited each student to stand at the dais at which Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, and declare “I have a dream.”
Israeli Consul General to Chicago and the Midwest, Aviv Ezra, explained to the group that dreams do indeed come true. Herzl dreamed about a State for the Jewish people, and it actually happened. He is the representative of the State of Israel which Herzl envisioned, and so any dream can come true.
The Theodor Herzl Public School is devoted to inspiring its students to dream big and, through an inspiring education, provides all 460 students with the tools necessary to achieve that dream.
Their dreams are no different than the dreams of the students of Temple Beth Israel and their families.
On two school buses, two groups learned an important lesson.
What we share is much greater than what makes us different. We all want, and have the right, to live in safety and to have the opportunity to achieve our potential both as an individual and as a people.
This is the lesson of Herzl, the person and the place.