Home October 2011 Teaching about Tolerance

Teaching about Tolerance

Selma Bukstein, 85, has a passion for teaching children about the importance of tolerance.  However, the Laguna Woods Village resident realizes the need to find a person or another Jewish organization willing to step up to the plate and take over the “Dolls for Democracy” program that she has been doing for more than half a century.
The program was started by B’nai B’rith Women back in Kansas City back in 1952.  Bukstein found out about it while she and her husband were living in Independence, Missouri, in 1957.  The free national program was created for the purpose of teaching high school students that fame, fortune and success didn’t rely upon race, religion, family origins, prior wealth or even physical health.  In fact, each doll had at least one disability.
Local sculptors created 12-inch figurines of famous people and biographies to go along with them.  Bukstein is in possession of six of the original dolls: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington Carver, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Juliette Low, and Mother Cabrini.  Their disabilities were  not always obvious to see.  Bukstein mentions that Abraham Lincoln had a lack of education and had several business failures.  Carver had been a slave.  Keller was deaf and blind, and her language skills were quite limited.  Einstein was dyslexic.  Low was deaf (a little-known fact), and Mother Cabrini was quite frail her entire life.
Speaking with Bukstein after a presentation for a Hadassah meeting in Laguna Woods, the passion to show members the importance of the program came through loud and clear.  Wisely deciding to perform it as she would to an actual elementary school class, she explained, “I decided a long time ago that this program needed to be given, starting in the elementary schools – second grade at the very latest.  By high school, most kids have already formed opinions and biases toward people.  We’ve got to get them early on if we intend to help them see the good in all people.  Prejudice is easy to make a lifelong lasting impression, but eradicating it may never happen once it is ingrained into their souls.
“When I first started giving this presentation, I was living in the South, and the Southern Poverty Laws were quite prevalent,” she said.  I was one of the few “Doll Ladies” who wanted to go to into the segregated schools.  I was appalled that the teachers there were not only unaware of, but also didn’t teach about the accomplishments of George Washington Carver!  Even then, my first thought waswe’ve got to get in there and everywhere else we can and do whatever it takes to educate the kids!”
She continued, “This is a great program.  It comes with a teacher’s workbook and a DVD. I’ve added pictures.  I’ve added civil rights activists Kim Dae-Jun from Korea and Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, as well as Cesar Chavez.
In fact, Bukstein has taken it upon herself and re-named the program “Heroes for Democracy.”  She thought the slight name change would make it more enticing to boys. “If in every class we could just turn one child’s opinion of what can be accomplished in life through this type of education, we have done so much to help our world,” she said.
B’nai B’rith Women disbanded in 1995, and the dolls went to the then newly formed Jewish Women’s International organization, which is housing about a hundred figurines in their warehouses in Washington D. C.  Bukstein feels this is just awful; “Here are these wonderful dolls, stories and history just sitting there and collecting dust and not being used to their full advantage!”
In the last few years, Bukstein has been using her own financial resources and time to contact school districts, administrators, teachers, the Boy and Girl Scouts (in fact, the Girl Scouts are the ones who gave her the Juliette Low figurine) and anyone else whom she can think of to tell them of her program and plight.  She hopes that someone take her up on the cause of educating today’s youth.
After Bukstein’s presentation at the Hadassah meeting, club President Barbara Rubin said many of the members came up and congratulated her for bringing Bukstein in as a speaker.  “One of the members did connect with Selma and told her she used to be a ‘Doll Lady.’  You never know; maybe between them both, something good will happen.”
Orange County Hadassah Development Officer Michelle Shahon says, “The fact that Selma put it out there in the way she would present it to elementary school age kids was really good.  There’s such a huge value in a program of this nature.  Hopefully, she will find someone or a few people to help see that it will continue.”
With her passion for all the dolls and her added stories and photos of modern heroes, Bukstein does have a personal favorite – Helen Keller.  “Here was a young child and later an adult with so many strikes against her.  Yet, she really paid her dues.  She not only made a career but quite a life for herself as well.  She really does show us all how having a spark and love of learning and reading can transcend anyone. In a time when most parents would’ve put a child like her into an institution, hers found a way for their daughter to thrive and give many other families hope.”
Bukstein says she stopped counting how many schools and places she has visited and how many programs she has performed through the years.  “I do know that by 1980 I had taught well over ten thousand classes.  That was over 30 years ago!  I love to include some time to talk about how each of the subjects has not only a lot of similarities, but I like to talk about their differences as well.  They all had a sense of brotherhood, tolerance and a deep understanding of wanting to do good for all.  It’s not a long program; it takes about 20 to 30 minutes.  The hardest part is just finding people who are willing to let me show them all it has to offer.  I guess the other hard part is finding someone who will feel the way I do and will want to see that it will be carried on.”
If anyone has either been a “Doll Lady,” knows of one or, better yet, knows of someone who would be willing to learn more about the program and work to keep it going, Bukstein would love to hear from that person.  Her e-mail address is:  psbukstein@aol.com.

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  1. Ms. Bukstein,

    My husband and I purchased a doll at a flea market today that after some checking have found that she is a “Tolerance Doll” On her back this is what is written: 1975 B’noi B’rith Women. She has no clothes but is still in wonderful condition. Looking on line we could not tell which one she is. There is very little information and no picture of her.
    We just wanted to ask if you could give us some more information on her and the dolls in general.

    Thanks so much for your time.

    Frank and Robin Painter


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