Alison Lebovitz

Alison Lebovitz gives the keynote speech at Jewish National Fund’s Women for Israel Luncheon.

Co-Chairs Brooke Levy and Helen Locke kicked off the Jewish National Fund’s Desert States: Women for Israel Luncheon on April 27 in front of a full crowd of women (and a few men) at The Clayton House in Scottsdale. Levy stated that it was nice to see the crowd and that it was the first time since 2019 that women had gathered together for the luncheon.

The keynote speaker for the event was Alison Lebovitz, television host, TedX speaker, author and podcaster. She currently serves as a board member for JewBelong (where she is board chair), Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University, Foundation for Jewish Summer Camp and the Tennessee Holocaust Commission. Since 2008, Lebovitz has served as co-founder and president of One Clip at a Time, a nonprofit inspired by the Paper Clips Project started in Whitwell, Tenn., promoting student activism and supporting service learning.

In 1998, Whitwell Middle School principal Linda Hooper asked language arts teacher Sandra Roberts and associate principal David Smith to begin a Holocaust education class that would be the basis for teaching tolerance and diversity in a voluntary after-school program. When the students, mostly white and Christian, struggled to grasp the concept and enormity of the six million Jews who died during the Holocaust, they decided to collect six million paper clips — one for each soul who perished — and the “Paper Clips Project” was born.

In 2001, the school received an authentic German railcar that became a permanent Children’s Holocaust Memorial. The students filled it with a portion of the more than 40 million paper clips collected to date. Then in 2004, a documentary entitled “Paper Clips” showed the world how the students responded to lessons about the Holocaust.

Lebovitz co-founded the nonprofit One Clip at a Time and worked with professional educators and curriculum experts to create a service-learning based curriculum, using the documentary and the project itself as a model, for how students and teachers can explore questions and challenges around their communities or classrooms locally and then find solutions that have an impact on the world.

“We started our first pilot programs in 2008. Since then, we have been hosting free, professional development institutes for teachers across North America,” said Lebovitz. “We’ve trained close to 500 educators from 29 states plus Canada — and counting.”

The curriculum is designed for students in fifth grade and up. Lebovitz clarifies that it is not a Holocaust education curriculum but a companion piece meant to complement history and social studies lessons surrounding World War II. To discuss what can happen when prejudice and intolerance go unchecked. And how to flip that paradigm and find ways to figure out what those challenges are in advance and then find solutions.

“That’s why it’s really service learning because the teachers do this in a way that it ties back to the curriculum already in the classroom. So it’s enhancing what they’re already doing,” said Lebovitz.

The students featured in the documentary now have their own children studying the curriculum and Lebovitz shared that everyone in the community understands the importance and are distinctly proud of the Paper Clips Project.

The importance of tolerance hit close to home in January 2022 when the 10-member McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted to ban “Maus,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust.

Lebovitz explained that she lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. and McMinn County is about 40 minutes north of her and Whitwell is 30 minutes to the east. “Here we are sandwiched between similar communities that couldn’t be more different in scope,” she said. “It’s just a matter of understanding. I think they [the McMinn school board] didn’t know, and if you don’t know something, you’re scared of it and when you’re scared, you tend to be aggressive, combative or even malicious. But when you know better — according to Maya Angelou — you should do better.” Lebovitz believes Whitwell is proof of what can happen in a community that understands.

Lebovitz was born in the South and joked that she was “born, raised and chosen.” She returned to the South after living in Boston and Chicago and traveling all over the world and admits she wouldn’t choose any other place to live because “there is a really important intentional approach to Judaism when you’re in a smaller community.”

There can also be challenges, one of those being that she would have liked her three sons, Arthur, Abe and Levi, to have had the opportunity to go to Jewish day school. There was none in the area but she and her best friend did start a Jewish preschool in Chattanooga in 2002, Aleph Bet Children’s Center, and it’s still going strong. “Now, my boys go to an all-boys Christian school, so I think it’s made them even more dedicated to their Judaism.”

Lebovitz also enforces the rule that her parents had of being home on Friday night for Shabbat dinner. “We thought it was torturous and unfair. So, of course, I had to do the same thing to my kids,” she joked.

Lebovitz shared that when her oldest son was 15, he wanted to go out with his friends on Friday night. She told him that he was welcome to invite his friends over for Shabbat. He questioned whether his mom would really let him invite 10 guys over for dinner? Lebovitz told him to give her the final headcount and she would make sure that there was enough food.

The school’s name he attended with his friends was McCallie, so in 2016, the tradition of the McCallie Shabbat began.

“That has become tradition with all three of our boys and our youngest is a senior,” said Lebovitz. Even when the boys were on their senior spring break trip in the Dominican Republic, they asked to do “highlight of the week” at dinner like they did at McCallie Shabbat. “A lot of these boys probably never met a Jewish boy before and they certainly never put on the kippah and had to do the prayers over the candles, wine and challah. They understand that this is part of our family tradition and it’s now part of their high school tradition.”

Lebovitz said her Judaism frames everything she does. “I’m so proud of it and I find such joy in it. At the end of the day, it’s this idea of tikkun olam — I know it’s almost like a cliché — but it’s so true. Our words and actions are so powerful and provide a guiding light, not just for our own families and communities, but also for others who see us as examples.” JN

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