It was an incident that made headlines around the world: a cinderblock was thrown through the bedroom window of 5-year-old Isaac Schnitzer in Billings, Mont., in December, 1993, to protest the family’s window display of a menorah and other Jewish symbols.
The investigating police officer suggested the family remove the symbols, but the child’s mother, Tammie, who was raised Lutheran and converted to Judaism after marrying a Jew, decided to fight. There were 50 Jewish families in the town of 80,000 and with the backing of a local church, hundreds of Sunday school children made paper cutout menorahs for their own windows. The local newspaper printed a full-page drawing of a menorah and encouraged people to put it on their windows. By the end of the week, menorahs were decorating as many as 10,000 homes. A children’s book about the incident, "The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate," was later written by Janice Cohn of Manhattan. The book was selected this year by SAJES, the Suffolk organization that provides educational services to teachers, for its second annual fourth and fifth grade read-on to celebrate Jewish book month that starts at the end of November.
Last year, 350 students participated, this year the number has grown to more than 600 in 22 religious schools and day schools across Long Island, according to Susan Remick Topek, SAJES’ director of early childhood education and library services.
"I want kids to read books and this is a great way because we make it available and accessible for the teachers, and the program is there for them," she said. "We tell the schools what books we recommend each year and we send them an activity guide and teachers’ guide, as well as information for the parents about the books so they know what is being read. We also send hands-on activities for the students and ask them for a book report because we want to know if they are meaningful for them." Each participating student receives a certificate with his or her name on it to "inspire more students to be reading Jewish books," Topek said. "Reading is becoming a lost art for many children. We want children to know that there are a lot of great Jewish books out there and that when they have to read a book for public school, they can read a Jewish book." Sharon Solomon, director of the religious school at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, said that after reading "The Christmas Menorahs" the students were asked to write about the importance of having a strong Jewish identity. She said that one child, Alex Cohen, a fifth grader, wrote: "I love being Jewish because Jewish people treat each other with kindness and not with hate." Solomon said the SAJES reading program has evolved into other things beyond the art project.
"The children showed such breadth and understanding of the topic that we decided to bring the author," Solomon explained. Janice Cohn, the author, visited the school last month and discussed her book with the students and their parents.
"The students were able to articulate their Jewish pride and identity and they discussed topics that were shameful, such as bigotry and hatred," Solomon said. "We were taken aback by their maturity in being able to discuss these harsh topics."
Among the questions the children asked was why the book was called "The Christmas Menorahs" and not "The Chanukah Menorahs." Cohn replied that it was hoped that the word Christmas in the title would enable the book to be marketed to a wider audience. And they asked whether Cohn had accurately recorded what happened in Billings.
"She said she was accurate and she brought along a DVD documentary about what happened called ‘Not In Our Town,’" Solomon said. "The children responded well and the parents had a chance to meet the author later to ask how to teach hate to children. … We’re now thinking about doing a play or a skit about acceptance and tolerance and Jewish pride. The parents were very happy with what we have done and want to see more programs of this type."