Principal Marc Light looks at the camera, he is wearing a grey suit and smiling. The King David School's logo is behind him, silver on a wood background.

The power of family stories

One of the precious items I possess is a tape-recording of an interview I conducted with my late grandfather, Kurt Lippmann, in which he detailed his story of escape from Hamburg, Germany in the lead up to the Shoah. In a peculiarity of the old cassette technology, the recording has bled into what it was taped over, so one can hear my grandfather with his thick German accent detailing his journey while 1990s pop music plays lightly in the background. While in parts this gives the recording a cinematic soundtrack quality, in other parts it makes it incongruous with the information being presented.

Regardless, I love having this embodiment of my grandfather. It provides not only the evidence and specifics of his, and hence my, origin story, but it also reminds me of who he was, what he valued and how we connected. 

Each year – perhaps the most important learning opportunity we provide –  comes in the form of the Kabbalat Dorot, our generations project. This is a Year 8 project where our students explore their families’ origin stories, conduct research and collect artefacts which reflect their experience. They present these in beautiful albums which we hope become a valued keepsake for them.

At this week’s Kabbalat Dorot, some of our students were invited to share a story from their family lore, to present a key family artefact or to explain the collage that they had prepared to summarise the multiple aspects that make up their identity.

We heard of miraculous stories of evading the Nazis and of a Jewish ancestor’s deportation to Australia as a convict. We learnt of family treasures such as beautiful Shabbat candlesticks, a prized Torah scroll and a beautiful painting created and smuggled through multiple concentration camps. Students extrapolated on the multiple components of their identities and what makes them unique.

Following this, our guests were invited to explore the cohort’s albums.  It was immediately apparent that a huge amount of effort, pride and love had been invested in exploring the family history. It was brilliant to explore the similarities and differences that add to the vibrancy of a united but diverse community. 

We are acutely aware that one of our key roles at the School is to assist our students in the formation of their proud identities as Australian Jews. We recognise that for this to be successful we need the narrative of their emerging identities to be filled with pride, knowledge and anchored within their family stories.

We celebrate the diversity within our community and avoid a dogmatic or prescriptive approach to Jewish practice. Rather, we see it as our place to allow for our children to develop Jewish literacy and the capacity to make informed choices about what this means in their lives. 

This was made clear for our participants when Director of Jewish Life and Learning, Ilan Bloch, shared a beautiful midrash that connected the passing down of Torah between the generations as akin to the passing of a ball. Ilan challenged the students to catch “the ball” of their Jewish identity, discover what it means to them and to be prepared to pass it on to future generations.

I trust that our students will continue to see their participation in Jewish life as a gift that offers them meaning in a way that rings true for them. Engaging our students in a deep focus of their families’ history, stories and artefacts, provides an opportunity to consolidate these understandings into individualised expressions of identity. Celebrating who they are and who they are becoming, in union with their families, is a wonderful way to consolidate these important lessons and to ensure that the ball keeps being passed along