Fifteen years and over 33 million paper clips later, the impact of a middle school project in tiny Whitwell, Tenn. (pop. 1,600), continues to be felt — perhaps nowhere more so than in the Philadelphia area, where a number of organizations have formed a special bond with the former coal town and its residents located 40 minutes northwest of Chattanooga.
The latest example of that relationship: A group of 47 students and 10 adults from Whitwell will travel here in November for “Beyond the Train,” a cultural-exchange program that will include the Tennessee group’s first visit to a synagogue and their first Shabbat services.
In advance of that visit, Sandra Roberts, the junior high school teacher who helped create the original paper clips project to commemorate the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust, will be coming to Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy on Oct. 10.
The event is part of an evening that will also include a showing of Paper Clips, the 2004 documentary made about the project.
Roberts, who will be talking about both the upcoming visit and her town’s ongoing legacy — which includes a Holocaust memorial that now attracts an estimated 5,000 visitors a year — says that ever since she first came to the area to speak at Har Zion Temple in November 2011, there has been no other place that has worked so closely with Whitwell.
In a phone interview from her classroom, she laughingly recalls the words of Har Zion Hebrew High School co-principal Norman Einhorn, who had organized the event and picked her up at the airport on her first visit here. “He said to me, ‘I don’t want this to be one of those places you visit and you go, “‘I think I was there.” I want this to be a place you remember.’ ”
Although the Whitwell group’s visit will be its first here, Einhorn has already led two local groups to Whitwell in what has become an annual tradition. It was during the group’s trip this past April that he made the decision to try to bring a group of students and adults from Tennessee to Philadelphia.
Standing in front of the memorial’s centerpiece, a rail car used to transport Jews to concentration camps during World War II, Einhorn remembers being so moved by the experience that he blurted out to his hosts, “We have to repay you for this amazing hospitality. We are going to bring you to Philadelphia, one way or another.”
That way turned out to be an inter-synagogue partnership the likes of which the educator says he has never seen during his 27 years in the field. Synagogues across the area came together to create and fund Philly Friends of Paper Clips, a nonprofit formed to help pay the expenses of the Whitwell group. “I went around to every Conservative and Reform synagogue on the Main Line,” Einhorn said. “The kids need to be with other kids, and we need to break down the synagogue walls — it’s all about the kids and the communities.”
The screening on Oct. 10, which serves as a fundraiser for the trip, is just the beginning of a very busy weekend for Roberts and the two high school students she is bringing with her to help discuss the project and what it means to their community.
Einhorn said she is scheduled to speak at The Shipley School, The Haverford School and possibly other schools on Friday, as well as participating in a Shabbat program at Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, speaking at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne and at Adath Israel in Merion Station.
Not that Roberts seems to mind the busy schedule. “I’m getting the opportunity through the very generous people in your community,” said Roberts, “to do something for my children that I would never have been able to do for them myself.”