Seniors Share Israel’s Founding With the Younger Generation

West Philadelphia native Harry Azoff recalls exactly where he was on May 15, 1948 — the day that David Ben-Gurion read Israel's Declaration of Independence, creating the first Jewish state in more than 2,000 years.

On that day, the now 83-year-old was nowhere near Tel Aviv; nevertheless, he retains vivid memories of the historic moment — memories that educators thought could help young Jewish day-school students get a more textured grasp on events that occurred before their time.

That day, Azoff was at his usual hangout in West Philadelphia: a large hall on Belmont Avenue that he and his friends rented, a place where they'd held dances and ping-pong tournaments. It was called the "31 Club," and for the group of 31 guys who grew up together in the neighborhood, it was like a second home. Azoff recalled a jubilant atmosphere, where the young men — who'd already been through so much — could celebrate the news heard on the radio that the Jews finally had a land of their own.

Yet not all of the gang was present that day.

"Some of them got killed in the war," stated Azoff, referring, of course, to World War II.

A regular at the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia, Azoff, a retired jeweler, shared some of his memories of Israel's first Independence Day, along with other tidbits about his life, with a group of fifth-graders at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day's Stern Center in Wynnewood.

As part of the school's celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut — Israel Independence Day — Perelman hosted 14 seniors from the Jewish Community Center for a busy day.

It began with interviews.

The children had been asked to prepare a series of questions for their guests, beginning with: "Do you remember where you were in 1948 when Israel became a state?"

After breaking up into small groups in the classroom, the students also questioned seniors about how they celebrated Shabbat growing up, and what their wedding ceremonies were like.

The idea, according to Lisa Richman, a Judaic studies teacher at the Stern Center, was to learn from real people about topics broached in school, ranging from the history of Israel to Jewish customs and rituals.

Zoe Winigrad, 11, had the opportunity to interview Azoff, and was especially interested to hear about his travels to Israel.

"I've never been to Israel, so I learned a lot," said Zoe, practically bubbling over with energy. "It was really cool to hear his stories. I had a lot of fun with him, and I felt like I made a really good friend today."

How did she like the chance to play reporter?

"In the beginning, it was a little weird because I kind of never questioned anybody before, but then I kind of got used to it," she replied.

Jeffrey Brietling, also 11, interviewed Sylvia Schwartz, who honestly didn't remember much about 1948 and has never been to Israel. But she was happy to discuss her wedding day, her grandchildren, even her daily activities over at the Stiffel.

Still, Brietling couldn't seem to get his mind off Israel; he will go there this summer as part of a school-sponsored trip.

"I'm going to have my birthday there, which is really cool," exclaimed Jeffrey. "I really want to go to the Dead Sea, because you always see pictures of people floating and stuff."

After the interviews, the Stiffel folks had lunch with second-graders who belong to the Mitzvah Club, and had the chance to eat chocolate-chip cookies baked by the kids themselves. They also got to enjoy a performance by the school's Opera Club; members sang excepts from a play called "Immigrant Kids."

Written by Brenda Alpar, the music and drama teacher, "Immigrants Kids" tells the story of Jewish South Philadelphia at the height of immigration in the last century. The Opera Club then led the room in Birkat Hamazon, or grace after the meal.

With no time for a break, the guests went on to hang out with third-graders before heading to the kindergarten classes, where the adults and children painted portraits of one another.

Azoff admitted that at first, he was reluctant to be involved in the day's activities. An artist and musician, he's a busy man. But in the end, he was glad he decided to participate.

"These kids are super," he remarked. "And so inquisitive!"



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