A sweet bribe and some help from her tech-savvy dad got 11-year-old Naomi Silverman of San Jose started on a family genealogy project that earned her a trip to Israel and first place in an international competition.
Naomi won top honors earlier this month in the North America, Australia and South Africa category at the My Family Story competition run by the Tel Aviv-based Museum of Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.
Her winning project, among those selected to take part in the competition from 200 submitted to the judging panel, focused on her great-grandmother — who died shortly before Naomi started putting it together last fall at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Rita Sylvia Rosen, who passed away at the age of 89, was the daughter of Philadelphia candy-store owners. Appropriately, Naomi’s journey of discovering her ancestor’s story began with a promise of candy.
Naomi’s friend, Noa Rudisch of Atlanta, had won a trip to Israel as part of the competition in 2016. In September, Naomi and her father, Jerry Silverman, decided to check it out when the Contemporary Jewish Museum announced it would be part of the 22-year-old program — open to Jewish students 11 to 15 years old — for the first time.
But Naomi wasn’t immediately hooked.
“My dad had to persuade me to do it because I wasn’t too engaged in it,” Naomi said during an interview at Adobe Systems in San Jose, where her father works as a senior product marketing manager. “Chocolate and rock candy was part of the bribe.”
During three sessions at the CJM, Naomi interviewed family members, gathered photos and other content and then put together her presentation — which was chosen from among five projects completed at the CJM and sent off to Beit Hatfutsot to compete with entries from 25 countries. In all, more than 20,000 students worldwide participated in the My Family Story initiative.
With help from Jerry, Naomi did script writing, voiceover work, video production, photography and even performed some of the music on the piano for her project, based around an animated box of chocolates.
“We were really close with [Rita], and also her parents owned a candy store back in Philadelphia, and I just happen to like candy, and so that’s what kind of got us interested,” Naomi said.
The Silvermans were notified in April that they would be flown to Israel after being selected among the 48 finalists. They were joined on the trip by Naomi’s 10-year-old sister, Alma, and by her Florida-based grandmother, Renee Silverman, Rita’s daughter.
“Naomi’s was so spectacular,” said Julie Grigoryan, family programs manager at the CJM. “Our hope in hosting these workshops was to bring together families to have this bonding and creative experience, and Naomi’s piece really exemplified all our hopes in this project.”
Grigoryan said the CJM already has signed up to participate in the My Family Story project again in the 2017-18 school year because “it closely allies with the CJM’s mission to have families create and explore their heritage together.” The next series of workshops at the CJM starts in October.
The Silvermans lived in Atlanta before moving to the Bay Area in 2015, and Naomi regularly visited Great-Grandma Rita in Florida with her family. What does she remember most about those visits? The sweets, of course.
“She had these flower cookies in her kitchen and when we went to her house we would always ask for them,” Naomi said. “At the end of every trip, she would pack us little goodie bags with flower cookies, chocolates and Cheerios.”
Rita died 12 days after the Silvermans attended the first workshop at the CJM.
“She was just on our minds a lot in that time,” Jerry said. “When somebody passes away, the family gets together and everyone is talking and sharing stories.”
Naomi, who said she might teach fellow congregants at Congregation Sinai in San Jose about putting together family videos as part of a mitzvah project for her bat mitzvah next summer, said her dad and grandmother started crying when she won the top prize.
Jerry, who lived in Israel from 1997 to 2002 and met his wife there, said it was even more special being with his mom for the awards presentation.
“It was very meaningful for her, especially since this project was about her family,” he said. “She’s still in the first year of mourning her own mother and I think something like this, where her mother’s story is being honored in this way, is extremely special to her.”