When Rachel Jarman Myers, a Jewish educator, works with children in Jackson, Miss., she typically asks the students if they know any Jewish people. Sometimes, one child raises a hand. But when she specifies that the person cannot be Myers herself, the child’s hand almost always goes back down.
The Jewish population in Mississippi has always been small. It peaked in 1927 with just 6,420 Jews. Today, there are only 1,500 Jewish people in an overall population of more than 2.9 million, according to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Myers, museum and special projects coordinator at the ISJL, aims to expand awareness of the region’s Jewish history with the Traveling Trunk, a hands-on curriculum she developed to teach non-Jewish children in secular public and private schools about Jewish culture and immigration. The program uses primary documents such as ship manifests, census records and business records from Jewish store owners — as well as artifacts and games — to tell the story of Jewish life in the South. It has also garnered Myers recognition from the Mississippi Historical Records Advisory Board, which presented her with an award this year for her use of archival material to bring history to life.
Traveling trunks are used often as outreach tools by history museums; Myers was inspired by a similar program run by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The items in her trunk, however, all come from the ISJL’s collection, and the activities and lesson plans that accompany them are carefully curated to introduce non-Jewish children to Jewish life and traditions. Much of the Judaica included in the trunk — such as a menorah, a shofar and a miniature Torah — was donated when area congregations closed their doors. Allowing students to hold these items and consider why Jewish immigrants would have brought them with them to the United States, Myers says, is “a great way to continue the legacy of these congregations that are no longer represented in their communities.”
One of her favorite lessons revolves around more than 100 letters sent to Bernheimer and Sons, a store in Port Gibson, Miss., by the store’s suppliers in 1900. Students team up to determine which manufacturer wrote each letter and where it originated from. They then track those locations on a map and learn how the goods traveled by train or boat to Port Gibson. Reading and understanding these documents, Myers says, is “a different sensation and accomplishment than just reading about it in a book.” The lesson ends with the children deciding what inventory they would stock if they had a store of their own.
Other Traveling Trunk lessons have been a hit with area teachers. Margaret Snider, who teaches 4th–6th- grade gifted education at McWillie Elementary School in Jackson, says her class was so fond of a “masking-taped rectangle that we marked off on our floor to illustrate the size of space allotted to the immigrants on their ships” that they convinced her to leave it in place for six months.
At East Amory Elementary in Amory, Miss., teacher Marcia Moore used reproductions of period clothes from the trunk as well as a game based on the travels of early Jewish peddlers in her lessons about anti-Jewish discrimination. She used the curriculum to impart an anti-bullying message, reminding her mostly white and Christian class not to look down on those with different backgrounds or abilities.