By Michael B. Soberman
Early in June on a sweltering hot day, I met an old friend in Chicago’s southwest neighbourhood of North Lawndale. In this neighbourhood, once a hub for Jewish inhabitants many years ago stands the Theodore Herzl School of Excellence, a most unlikely place to find the name of one of the visionaries of Zionism. But there is a story attached to the name of this school, a story that is both inspirational and universal.
In 1915, the school was built in what was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. While Theodore Herzl had never visited Chicago (or America for that matter), this was the first – and until today the only – public school to bear his name. Shortly after his death and more than 30 years before the creation of the modern State of Israel, the community wanted to remember his vision and honour his dreams.
Today, the school’s population is comprised mostly of African-American and Hispanic students. They wear a uniform with Herzl’s name on and it is worth mentioning, the school’s football team; the Herzl Bears was undefeated this past season. What is striking about the school, its teachers, staff and Principal, Tamara Davis, is the commitment to excellence and encouraging the students to follow their dreams, a message that Theodore Herzl promoted all over Europe more than a century earlier. Herzl’s dream was about the creation of a Jewish State, one he never lived to see come to fruition but his message goes beyond the Jewish community and suggests that anything is possible if you have dreams and then pursue them. That is the message upon which the Herzl school is based and that is what I saw in the eyes of the students, many of who come from a challenging environment. Together we listened to David Matlow – the world’s largest collector of Herzl memorabilia, community activist and my friend – as he taught the students about the man who is the school’s namesake.
In January of 1966 another dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved his family into a small apartment in Lawndale and just a few blocks from the Herzl School of Excellence. The legacy of both Dr. King and Theodore Herzl proves that great things can come from following your dreams. Whether by coincidence or by design, these two icons can be tied to the neighbourhood of Lawndale. I was, and remain inspired by the teachers, staff and students of the Herzl School of Excellence and take great comfort in the fact that more than 100 years after his death, Theodore Herzl’s message remains universal and relevant. Time will tell if the next great leaders, thinkers, artists, athletes and educators come from the Herzl School of Excellence but of one thing I am sure…”if they will it, it is not a dream.” Go Herzl Bears Go
Michael Soberman is a Senior Educational Consultant at the iCenter for Israel Education and has been working in the field of experiential education for the past 25 year.