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Learning Experience

May 10, 2012 By:
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Breaking the fourth wall: Tammie Schnitzer hugs Maya Rabinowitz (left). Photo by Dora Ficher

A hate crime that took place 19 years ago and 1,700 miles away has become a learned lesson for the students of Plymouth Meeting Friends School.

Resident playwright Frumi Cohen's self-described "musical documentary," titled The Power of One, was performed to packed houses over the weekend at the 232-year-old Quaker institution.

The play, which was performed by the school's sixth-graders, is based on a true story.

On a crystalline, cold December 1993 night in the town of Billings, Mont., someone threw a brick through the bedroom window of Tammie Schnitzer's 6-year-old son, Isaac, shattering the glass -- and his lighted menorah.

The hate crime was the latest in an ongoing campaign by Montana's white supremacist movement to terrorize the state's minorities, a campaign that included the desecration of the town's only Jewish cemetery and attacks on the other minority groups that made up roughly 7 percent of the town's population of 80,000.

While the incident shocked virtually everyone, there was one person who was not surprised.

"I was really involved with human rights before that, on the Montana Human Rights board. I had no doubt that it was gonna happen," Schnitzer recalls. "I was teaching Hebrew school and we had a small temple with a wooden door. And when I walked outside there was a swastika carved into the door. We would get bomb scares during a service."

What made this incident different, what gave it the power to not only change the climate of tolerance in Montana in 1993 but to resonate nearly two decades later in Plymouth Meeting, was the response of Schnitzer and the people of Billings.

Schnitzer, who had helped found the Billings Coalition for Human Rights earlier that year, reached out to the state's politicians. A local church sponsored a menorah-drawing event. The editor of the Billings Gazette published editorials and a full-page illustration of a menorah that people could clip out to display.

Ultimately, some 10,000 pictures of menorahs were put in the windows of Billings-area homes in a show of solidarity that persisted despite the intimidation attempts of the white supremacists.

Frumi Cohen was one of the countless Americans moved by the accounts of what happened in Billings. And like many of those affected by it, the longtime educator decided to do something about it.

As the resident playwright and music teacher at Plymouth Meeting Friends School, she had a built-in platform. The result of her efforts was The Power of One, which she says "is a composite" of hate crimes she has read and heard about over the years, including a similar brick-throwing incident closer to home, in Newtown in 2000.

While having 12 year olds immersed in such a difficult subject may seem controversial, Cohen says that just the opposite is true. "We teach tolerance. It is one of our missions as a Quaker school -- human rights, activism -- so it's not foreign to our kids."

That is not to say she had a completely uneventful experience with her young charges. "In a way, they are so sheltered in our school because they are so encouraged to be who they are," she relates. "It was hard for them to understand."

As an example, she talks about how "the kids had a hard time being vandals" for the purposes of the play. "We had to teach them how to do it: how to spray paint, how to rip up fences. They said, 'But that's mean!' "

One of those kids is Maya Rabinowitz, a 12-year-old from West Mount Airy. She played the fictionalized Schnitzer in "The Power of One." While Schnitzer was at the center of the real-life story, her character in the play is not, which appealed to Rabinowitz.

"I'm not one of those people who wants to be the center of attention. I was a little afraid of singing in front of people," she explains, although she seems to have overcome that fear: while "the other main female character has more lines, I have a bigger singing part."

So as to more fully inhabit her role, Rabinowitz decided to Google Schnitzer. "I knew that this was a true story, but I didn't know if my character was real. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be so cool if I could to talk to my character?' "

After her attempts to find Schnitzer proved unsuccessful, Rabinowitz's mother took over the sleuthing duties. A phone call to a Long Island synagogue where Schnitzer had spoken the previous year yielded a phone number, and soon Rabinowitz was able to do her first-person research.

"She was very warm, very nice," and very clear about the reality of hate crimes, the teenager recalls. "From the time you're young, they tell you about this kinda stuff. People make it sound like it could never happen to you, almost like it's a story, it's so far away. Eventually you find out it's not so far away. It happens to Jews, to African-Americans.

"Once I talked to Tammie and heard her side of the story, it made me realize that it does happen," Rabinowitz says. "It's not just a story; it's real life."

Schnitzer, for her part, was so intrigued by what she learned from her young avatar that she decided to make the 12-hour drive from her current home in South Carolina to see the show and meet with Cohen, Rabinowitz and the rest of the cast and crew.

The encounter, much like the production and staging of the play itself, seems to have benefited all involved. When asked for her reaction to being witness to a retelling of her experience in 1993, Schnitzer breathed deeply and exclaimed: "I really can say that there is a huge sense of a weight lifted off my shoulders, that the next generation's taking this on. Maybe they can reconcile the issue in different ways."

As she puts it, "There will be no social justice unless you take a part in it."

As for her alter ego, Rabinowitz has a clear-eyed takeaway from the experience: "I am still a kid, but I understand more, and understanding can be the difference."

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