By Deborah Riemer
Claire Goldstein Simmons waited to exhale. She was leading a group of adults on her Jewish history study tour through Poland and Prague when she overheard a Polish guide speaking to a group of teenagers in a bunkroom at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. He rattled off the numbers about the women prisoners in the camp, their duties and their tasks, as if they were anonymous.
“I wonder if I could interrupt,” she said. “My Mom was here. So I thought you might like to hear what it was like for her.” The high schoolers, from a private school in London, were non-Jews traveling on a field trip to bolster their WWII curriculum. In the time it took for a few of the kids to text their buddies at home, Claire had the group riveted to her words. “How old are you? 17? That’s how old my Mom was when she arrived here. She was scared and alone. But she managed to survive and keep her younger sister alive because she had a secret weapon. It was her weapon of the spirit.”
The interaction between Claire and her young audience took 10 minutes. Ten minutes that changes lives. Three of the girls broke down. Hugging Claire through their tears they swore they would bring her words and her call to action back to their neighborhoods. To not stand silent when friends are taunted for being different. To be the notes, not stuffed into cracks, but the living notes that would tell the story. They now had an obligation to the future.
Simmons was born in a displaced persons camp in Czechoslovakia to a mother who survived Auschwitz. She lived the first seven years of her life in Israel among survivors, just as the new Jewish state was born.
“When my Mom decided to leave Israel and move to the States to be with her only surviving relative, I cried all the way,” Simmons remembers. “Early on I knew that the next best thing to living in Israel would be to raise a generation that loved being part of the Jewish people.” From that early promise, she has never looked back.
“I became a Jewish educator and historian because of my legacy. I never met my grandmother, but the last thing she whispered to my Mom as she was standing on the unloading ramp at Birkenau before being led to the crematorium was, ‘remember who you are,’” Simmons says. “That’s what drives me every day.”
Simmons began her career in Jewish education with a degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary. One of her first achievements was developing the Hebrew language program at American University. In 1971, she was recruited from American University to join a group of Washingtonians with a dream. It turned out to be her dream. She became one of the founding teachers at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. What began with seven students grew into the largest Jewish Day School in the country. “Remember, this was 40 years ago,” she said. “The only options for Jewish education were Hebrew school or going the yeshiva route. The few Jewish Day schools that existed did not provide Jewish education beyond middle school. We began with seven students and today we have 700. We built an entire curriculum for young people taking them through high school, solidifying their commitment to their Jewish identity and to Israel.”
Simmons established the Ulpan program at the Charles E. Smith Day School, taught Jewish history and eventually served as the chair of the Jewish history department from 1980 to 1994. Along the way, she became a legend in the D.C. area. It began with her student trips to Poland and Israel. Very quickly they became the most sought-after and talked-about crowning journeys for seniors. “They were life-changers,” one parent said. “We wanted to experience what our sons and daughters were experiencing, so we urged Claire to start running trips for us.”
Meeting their requests for small, customized Jewish history travel tours to connect them with their roots, Simmons founded Jewish History Travels to engage American Jews in thought-provoking journeys to reinforce the richness of their heritage. She also widened her net by offering adult education classes in her community so she could reach anyone with an interest in learning more about who they are, where they come from and why they should be proud to be part of the Jewish people.
Simmons has that rare gift. She understands the urgency of Jewish continuity and communicates the passion of ‘Klal Israel,’ the unity of the Jewish people, in a way that empowers everyone she meets.
“I raised an entire generation, thousands of students, who are activists today. I planted the seed. And I am very proud of that.”
Deborah Riemer is a broadcast journalist, writer and producer. She currently lives in Rhinebeck, N.Y.