Coming to America: The Boonin Family

Home Coming to America: The Boonin Family

Coming to America: The Boonin Family

By the turn of the twentieth century, political tensions in Eastern Europe forced Jewish families to move from their homelands looking for better opportunities in other countries. One of the most popular destinations was the United States, which resulted in a prominent immigrant-born population in cities such as New York and Philadelphia. However, establishing in a new place was not an easy task and the methods of transportation we enjoy today were not the same before, making travels longer. Furthermore, moving from one place to another as a foreign citizen was an arduous task, especially when belonging to a community who faced discrimination and religious persecution.

This lesson analyzes the experience of Jewish immigrants moving to the United States using Leon Boonin’s memories of his travel. This narrative details the reasons why his family left Russia, the difficulties they faced when leaving, and the journey that brought them to  Philadelphia. Even though this was written decades later after their journey, this detailed memoir provides a first-hand experience of people moving across the globe during the early-twentieth century. Throughout the text, Boonin highlights methods of transportation he used, his perception about the people he met, the cities he visited in Europe, and the concerns regarding moving to a new country. This memoir will engage the students into a compelling narrative in which Boonin also reconstructs his family history, and how their lives as Jewish immigrants reshaped their identities in the search for a new home.

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Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within Pennsylvania history influence your community today?
What role does analysis have in historical construction?


Students will be able to:

  • Work with a first-hand account to analyze the experience of Eastern European immigration in the early-twentieth century.

  • Reflect about migration as a process of movement by studying world geography, distances, and methods of transportation.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  • Prior to the class, ask the students to read Boonin’s memoir “Experiences in coming to America.” We have transcribed the document and incorporated footnotes to guide the reader through the different locations, distances, and methods of transportation the Boonin family used to cross the globe. Tell the students to pay attention to the footnotes for a later activity. They can use the Glossary of Jewish terminology to look for unfamiliar terms:

  • Use the presentation (slides 1 to 10) to go over the main topics they saw throughout Boonin’s memoir (25 min):

    • Documentation and restrictions: Begin by asking students if they have travelled outside Philadelphia, and what kind of transportation they used. Once they can think about the different methods we use today, explain to them how different these were during the early 1900s. Also, put emphasis on the difficulties people faced due to political and social restrictions, a challenge a lot of Jewish people from Eastern Europe dealt with in the past century (for instance, not everybody had an easy access to passports, the borders of their countries are closed, etc.).

    • Europe in 1911: Discuss some examples of Boonin’s reflections about the challenges him and his family faced in Russia. Show students the geography in Europe in 1911 in comparison to today. For example, present-day Russia was the Russian Empire and comprised different small regions that are independent nations nowadays, e.g. Belarus.

    • Finally, explain the students how this landscape affected the lives of the Boonin family (slides 11 to 13). The presentation provides a general background about their lives, names and dates of birth, and the history behind Leon Boonin’s memoir.  

  • Divide the students in two groups (or four depending on the size). One will review the first part of Leon Boonin’s document, and the other the second part. Hand each group a working packet (Working Packet 1 and Working Packet 2) that contains questions, a map, and a chart they need to fill out in order to indicate the route the Boonin siblings crossed in their journey to the United States. (35 min).

  • Finalize the class with each group presenting their findings and giving a small presentation about the Boonin’s journey through Europe until they reached the United States. Ask each group to put the map on a wall and explain the routes. Together, the three maps show the boonin family’s trajectory from their hometown, Slutz, until their final destination, Philadelphia.

  • Ask the students what do they think about this long journey and it challenges (for example, the points of control in the borders, the health inspections for the steamers, etc.), would they do something like that if they faced similar problems like the Boonin family?

  • As a final reflection, they should write a short essay (2 page) answering: Did Boonin’s memoir helped you to understand Jewish immigration during the early-twentieth century? Why or why not?

  • Ask them to relate the background information they saw during the first part of the presentation with the history of the Boonin family.

  • They should also reflect about the importance of primary sources to observe the impact of global events on individual people.


Immigration: movement of people from their place of origin to another country to which they are not native, in order to settle or reside there.

Jewish/Jews: People live their lives according to the doctrines and practices of Judaism.

Judaism: monotheistic religion. The origins of Judaism are associated with the ancient Hebrew people of Israel and to Abraham, and to the laws revealed to Moses and recorded in the Torah (supplemented by the rabbinical Talmud), which established the Jewish people’s special relationship with God.