Since last winter the education program as been experimenting with project based learning. As I understand it, in a project based learning program: learning takes place over a period of time (often weeks); students are accountable each week to their peers for work done in class and out of class (when students are accountable for their work to a community they are more motivated to complete projects.); the end result benefits or informs, in an authentic and meaningful manner, a larger community; the community values student’s work and understands it to be authentic; and students ask for “more”.
This past March, with the support of their teachers our sixth grade students engaged in project based learning endeavor. When a generous donation to restore and hang BAI’s World War II memorial plaque was given, it made sense that our sixth grade students should be involved in a rededication ceremony as their teacher, Ali Cutler, is the granddaughter of Len Cutler, a founding member of Beth Am Israel who is a World War II veteran.
With the support of Ali, groups of sixth grade students researched different wars in which BAI veteran’s served. The students then wrote questions they had for the veteran’s about: serving in an army; war in general; the war they fought in; and what they did during the war. An intergenerational dialogue took place as the students interviewed our veteran’s and as the veteran’s shared their experiences. The sixth grade students then prepared a moving presentation for our rededication ceremony and took the lead role in honoring the war veteran’s in our community.
Here is what they said:
“We, the sixth graders, are here to honor the veterans in the Beth Am community, and specifically three very special veterans who took the time to come in and share their stories with us. Their names are Leonard Cutler, Abe Beer, and David Soskis. Would you please come up here with us? [pause while they walk up front]. From them, we learned about each of their experiences in war. These men put their individual agendas aside and risked their lives by fighting for our country and ideals like freedom, fairness, and a better world. In a few minutes, you will all be able to view the plaque which honors the dedicated World War II veterans from Beth Am, but symbolically it stands to represent all Beth Am veterans, for their bravery and commitment to causes bigger than themselves has left high shoulders for each of us to stand on. As you walk by, take a moment to observe and commemorate the lives of those who came before us, whose actions and decisions have allowed us to become what we are today.
We interviewed Mr. Abe Beer and he told us many interesting stories. For example, in France, he saw his neighbor a few days before an attack. Sadly, that neighbor died in the attack. In another battle, Abe had to carry his teacher from a previous training. Abe’s cousins and brothers fought in the war with him. His stories show the horror and loss that American families suffered during this war. People lost brothers and cousins, sons, and grandsons, teachers, neighbors, and friends. Abe is a good person, whose story carries much sorrow, and from his loss, we know that we are lucky to not have to experience this kind of war.
I also heard Abe speak. His story is very interesting and I learned a lot from him. Before he came in, I didn’t understand how violent World War II was, but then Abe shared a story with us. When Abe was in London, England, he met a friend who took care of him. Abe was called to France, but he told his friend that they would stay in touch and write letters to one another. When he arrived in France, he wrote this friend a letter but the letter was returned with the letters KIA written on the envelope: Killed In Action. I think this was a very sad experience for Abe, and it taught me how personal and bad the war was for so many people.
When Abe got home from the war, his grandmother came downstairs to greet him and offered to take his heavy bag upstairs. A few days later, his grandmother got sick and the family called the local doctor. When the doctor got there, he took off her hat and she began to murmur. The doctor thought she was not making sense, but Abe’s mom said she was reciting the Shema, because she knew she was going to die. She died an angel. So today, we honor Abe because he is one of our angels. Through his story, we learned about sacrificing ourselves to protect the ideals that we value. Thank you Abe, for sharing your story and teaching us so much about honor, sacrifice, and family.
The next person you are about to hear about is a Vietnam war veteran. He made many sacrifices like going against his mixed feelings regarding the war; he signed up when he was 29 years old because he believed that everyone should give duty and service to their country. His job in the Vietnam War was to nurse patients back to health who had been emotionally or mentally harmed. He helped to treat many veterans who had suffered trauma so severe that they were experiencing symptoms of PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After the war, when he returned to America, he was disrespected, looked down upon, and even blamed for the war by some anti-war protestors. But, throughout the war, he made life-long friends who he relied on to pass through hard times. Thank you, David, for coming to speak to our class, and for teaching us about the complexity of America’s involvement in Vietnam as well as the effects of PTSD and the bravery of fighting in a war that was many times unpopular at home.
On December 7th, 1941, the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor. The next day on the radio, the President told everyone about Japan’s attack and Americans knew we were about to go to war. That week, Germany declared war on the United States, and the US was officially at war. At the time, Leonard Cutler was 19 and a half, and he volunteered for the army, wanting to defend his country from further bloodshed. Before he went into combat, he was both excited and frustrated, but not nervous. He went to 17 weeks of basic training, where he learned about weapons and hand to hand combat, and was then shipped off to the South Pacific.
Len decided that he wanted to go to war when he was only 19 years old. His desire was to help his country. His parents at first were not happy with his decision, as they worried about his going off to fight. It took a long time for them to understand his decision that serving his country was more important than his previous path, but they let him go anyway. He was enlisted on May 28th, 1943.
As Len was on the boat going to the South Pacific, he slept in a room with many other men, in beds stacked 6 people high. The boat was unescorted and traveled through Panama and then on to New Caledonia. The men aboard knew the danger they were headed in to, as fighting the Japanese in the jungle was rumored to be a very difficult task. After six weeks, Len arrived in New Caledonia, and ran into his next door neighbor from Philadelphia. He felt God was watching over him, because his neighbor was able to transfer him to the air force, a much safer way to fight than the jungle war he had been ordered in to. He was pleased that his new job provided less of a chance of death, and knew that his life was saved by this miracle.
(Julia Kahn-Kothman:) Another person we are honoring is my grandfather, Donald Kahn. He is a Vietnam War veteran and was a flight surgeon in Vietnam. His story starts in 1969 when he heard that physicians were getting drafted to go to war, so he volunteered to serve his part at an air base. To get to where he wanted to be, he had to go through many long weeks of training, and hard work. He was then sent to Vietnam and worked as a doctor at an air base, taking care of the pilots and crew of the air ships. Occasionally, there would be emergencies when he would have to go onto the battle field and rescue planes that had been shot down or had crashed. Eventually he got interested in the civilians and how the war was impacting them. So, he helped to start a little practice once a week, in villages where he was stationed in South Vietnam. He made many friends in the war including some who let him have the opportunity to fly planes, although he was not able to get his own license because he is colorblind. My grandfather finally returned home to his family in 1971 and was proud of his experience helping others in the Vietnam War.
(Ali Cutler:) Len Cutler is my grandfather and I am blessed that he was able to come to class and teach us all about his experience in the war. But even more than the stories he shared, I am privileged to have grown up in his legacy. Isaiah di Trani, in a medieval commentary on the Talmud, spoke about standing on the shoulders of giants, in that the gifts given to each of us by those who come before, explain our own successes and achievements. My grandfather’s dedication to Judaism and Beth Am has kept me connected to this community for as long as I can remember. He has taught me faith and honor, he has shown me how to love and give unconditionally, he has taught me humbleness and pride, for he embodies all the characteristics that the students have spoken about today. Grandpa, you are the giant whose shoulders I stand on. You are a true hero, and not because you put yourself aside to fight in WWII, but because, every day, you put yourself aside to allow others their moment in the spotlight. Today, we honor you, and all the veterans here today who have put themselves aside and deserve so much recognition for their amazing accomplishments. Whenever I walk by the plaque upstairs, I am humbled by the great heroes that have come before me; I’d like to invite all of our veterans up now, to come join us; it is your shoulders we at Beth Am all stand on today and every day.”
Now that the program is over the essential question is: was the program a success? If you were with us the Shabbat morning when we rededicated the plaque you may remember how the presentation moved you and the congregation. The students’ learning took place throughout the course of a month; the students were accountable each week to their peers for work done in class and out of class; the presentation informed the entire community in a meaningful way; anecdotal feedback from the parents leads me to believe that the community valued the students’ work and finally, the students asked for more. Parents have shared with me conversations that were opened up in their homes with family and friends who are war veterans and many of the students are now engaged in a study of the conflicts and wars Israel has fought since 1948 in which personnel are being highlighted.
This has been just one example of the some of the project based learning that has been taking place at BAI this year. As another example, our Beit Sefer students spent two months studying Megillat Esther and rehearsing a play performed at BAI on Purim. A similar project involved the study of Megillat Ruth and poetry writing which culminated at poetry readings at BAI and at a community event in Lower Merion sponsored by the Arts and Spirituality Center. All the students in our Yom Chameeshi program are learning about Israel through projects which will be presented during our move-up ceremony on June 10.
Finally, I am pleased to share with you that next year our Beit Sefer program will be based on this model. It’s exciting for both the students and educators to be involved in educational opportunities that integrate and bridge multiple constituencies in our community and value and support student learning.