WEST ORANGE, NJ — High school students at Golda Och Academy in West Orange will become documentary filmmakers this year, as 20 students in grades 10 through 12 participate in the “Names, Not Numbers” program. The program turns studying the Holocaust into an interactive project, enabling students to interview Holocaust survivors and subsequently create a documentary film. Journalists, filmmakers and Holocaust scholars will participate in the students’ project, which will premiere June 3, 2018.
“I was invited to see a project at a school in Englewood,” program coordinator Erin Sternthal, who is also Golda Och’s marketing and communications associate, told the West Orange Chronicle in a phone interview on Nov. 20. Sternthal learned of the program after seeing The Moriah School’s contribution to the project in Englewood. “I was extremely moved by the documentary and the concept of the program. I felt passionate that this was a program that the students at Golda Och Academy would truly benefit from and be forever changed.”
For two days each week, students will be learning how to conduct an interview, use camera and lighting equipment, and edit a documentary film. The program kicked off with Golda Och alumni returning to the school to discuss interview skills, and on Dec. 13 and 14, the students will be broken into groups of four to complete interviews.
Sternthal said the “Names, Not Numbers” program will give students skills that they will need when they graduate high school.
“They’re learning real life documentary-making skills, which is invaluable for those who want to move on to work with film, or in communications and journalism,” she said. “And they’re not learning these stories from a textbook; it’s a face to face, more interactive experience.”
And the survivors who are being interviewed can also benefit from the program, Sternthal said.
“For some of them, they haven’t had the chance to have their stories recorded,” she said. “So for them it’s an equal opportunity to have their stories preserved.”
Project adviser Michael Stern, a social studies teacher, agreed with Sternthal about the program’s benefits, saying that one student is even interviewing her own grandfather for the project.
“In this case, not even his granddaughter knows his full story, so it gives him a chance to tell not just everybody, but even his whole family,” Stern said in a phone interview on Nov. 21. “It can be cathartic to have an ear to tell their story to.”
Stern also agreed with Sternthal about the interactive aspects of students working on the “Names, Not Numbers” project. “They’re meeting with real people; they can empathize with that,” he said. “From an educational point of view, for kids who want to go into journalism and TV production, it helps with those skills.”
Some of the students who are working on the documentary do want to eventually work in the communications field, like seniors Lizzie Irwin and Sam Russo. Others, like senior Alex Moskovitz, want to be politicians. Both fields require skills important to creating a documentary.
“It’s been teaching me how to ask the tough questions,” Moskovitz said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Nov. 21. “Sometimes when you’re talking to someone about a sensitive subject like the Holocaust, it’s hard to talk about. We’re working with people who have been through a lot.”
Irwin said that speaking to survivors and working on the documentary has made the history hit closer to home for her.
“Not that it’s dull, it just feels like it was so long ago and like it doesn’t have an effect on us,” she said in a phone interview on Nov. 21. “This brings it closer to home and shows that it does still affect us. The research has showed that there’s not one Holocaust story; everyone met different people and went through really different experiences.”
Russo agreed, explaining how the process helps him to better relate to the Holocaust as more than just a chapter in a history book.
“This humanizes it more,” Russo said in a phone interview on Nov. 21, adding that he and his cohorts have an advantage while working on this project that future generations will not. “It’s educational for us because we’re the last generation that might be able to talk to survivors, and help teach others.”
“There is no downside to a program like this,” Head of School Adam Shapiro told the Chronicle in an email on Nov. 22. “Our students are able to bear witness to the stories of the Holocaust firsthand and they will in turn be able to teach others as a result of this important work. When it comes to the survivors who are telling their stories, our students are creating an opportunity … for those stories to be preserved and told over and over again to future generations who will not have the opportunity to sit across from these incredible people and hear the stories for themselves.”
Photos Courtesy of Golda Och Academy