The Jewish population of Whitwell, Tenn., increased by 5,300 percent on Sunday as a busload of 53 teens and adults from Har Zion Temple pulled into the tiny, rural town.
The mostly white, Protestant population here has grown accustomed to welcoming tourists since middle schoolers collecting paper clips to represent the Holocaust death toll picked up media attention and eventually built a full-fledged memorial. But this was the first time they'd greeted so many Jews from quite so far away: 27 students plus parents and clergy from the Conservative synagogue in Penn Valley.
"We're standing in Appalachia and not somewhere you'd expect that people would care, and I feel like they care even more," said Jordan Gottlieb, a freshman at the Shipley School.
The impetus for the whirlwind overnight trip came from Norman Einhorn, co-principal of Har Zion's Hebrew high school. He'd been using the 2004 Paper Clips documentary to teach his students its "incredible lesson about taking care of others," and arranged to have Whitwell teacher Sandra Roberts come to Har Zion in November. So moved by her speech, he vowed — "in the heat of the moment" — that synagogue members would find a way to visit the memorial.
In less than six months, he had more travelers than he could fit in a van, and the Kestenbaum Family Foundation had committed financial support to anyone who needed it. Congregants paid about $500 apiece for the trip, flying into Atlanta and then boarding a coach bus for the two-and-a-half-hour ride into southeast Tennessee.
As the bus pulled up to Whitwell Middle School, Roberts and a crowd of current and former students in her extracurricular Holocaust studies group stood outside waving. They led the procession to the memorial housed in a German rail car that had once been used to transport prisoners to concentration camps.
Joy Wilf Keiser, a retired teacher from Bryn Mawr, ran her hand along the walls and railings, thinking, she said, of all the people who had ridden that car to their death.
"Standing there and touching it, it was like, 'We're still here, it's OK,' " Keiser said, tearing up. "I feel responsible for their souls and I feel so fortunate to be here."
Several students commented that it was hard to imagine each paper clip representing a human life — or that a town with not one Jewish resident would take the time to create this.
Alix Steerman, a freshman at Harriton High School, said friends asked her why she was visiting a place where there was nothing to do. She had to explain, she said, that it wasn't about doing something, "it's about being with these people who tried so hard and telling them that we care, too."
The students spent the evening playing games before gathering for dinner in the school cafeteria. The Whitwell teens offered grace before the meal and later followed along with a transliteration as the Philadelphia contingent sang the Hebrew prayer after meals.
"What they've done here has truly linked everyone," said Joshua Moskow, a junior at Lower Merion High School.
The next morning started in a room the former principal requested when the district built a new middle school a few years ago: a visitors center to house all the art work, plaques, photos and other mementos the school has received since the project started in 1998.
Back then, they worried that they'd never collect 6 million paper clips, remembered 26-year-old Molly Sisk, now a fifth-grade reading teacher at her alma mater. Two years in, responses to their letters had slowed when news stories suddenly sparked more donations.
"In our little town, you just don't think anything like that would happen," Sisk said.
Numbered binders stuffed with letters from all 50 states and all seven continents fill several bookshelves. A Torah came from Lithuania; paper-clip artwork from China and Germany.
"We have more Holocaust reference books than a university," Roberts said proudly, noting that one donor regularly sends shipments. Each grade reads a Holocaust novel every year.
Though the schoolchildren stopped counting paper clip donations after 33 million, people still send them. Eleven million went into the train car, another 11 million into an adjacent statue and 6 million to a school in New Jersey. Others were given to visitors or included in educational materials for teachers put together with help from the Jewish community in nearby Chattanooga. A larger than life paper clip decorated by Har Zion students has a special place of honor in Roberts' classroom.
"It is still hard for me to grasp that millions of people were killed just because they were different," said Whitwell senior Larissa Gholston, who had participated in the Holocaust studies group five years ago.
Though none of the Whitwell students have Jewish family (other than one's late great-grandmother, who converted to Christianity after immigrating to the United States in the 1930s), eighth grader Dalton Slatton said the project has still "been a great blessing" to everybody living there.
The community used to be kind of judgmental, Slatton said, but the culture shifted thanks to the lessons of acceptance and tolerance. Now, he said, "it has to be one of the most loving communities I've ever been to."
Roberts said the project has also opened students up to a slew of opportunities. Her middle school tour guides regularly meet doctors, attorneys and other visiting professionals, and realize they could go to college for those kinds of careers, too. Donors flew kids who had previously never left the state to Miami for a Holocaust studies program, and last summer, to Poland to tour concentration camps.
Then there's Cassie Yawn, one of the girls featured in the documentary who bonded with a visiting Holocaust survivor named Sam. When he confided that his greatest fear was that nobody would remember his life, Roberts said, "she climbed in his lap and said, 'I will be your granddaughter, and I will remember you.' " Years later when Yawn was pregnant she called Sam to let him know that he would be a great-grandfather, Roberts said. They stayed in touch until he died two years ago.
Einhorn and fellow parents half-joked about future trips to Tennessee, or perhaps getting Roberts to Israel. Sammi Levin, a junior at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, presented the teacher with a rock from Masada to one day return to the Jewish state.
Her mom, Michele, said she's seen countless memorials on Jewish philanthropy missions, but what the kids did in Whitwell was particularly moving because it came from the heart.
"They've taken our history and used it to learn and to change a community," Levin said. "If anything good could ever come out of something as bad as the Holocaust, at least this could happen."
The Kestenbaum Family Foundation funded the travel expenses for this story.