Monday, May 2, 2011

Shoah Education in the 21st Century

Today marks Yom Hashoah V'hagevurah, which means the Day of the Catastrophe (Holocaust) and Heroism. I am often remiss that in we often omit the second part of the day's title, not to mention translate Shoah as Holocaust, which actually means burning by fire. This date marks the anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, which is why, in 1951, the Israeli Government chose this date to commemorate the catastrophe of the Holocaust by recognizing both the victims and the heroes.

The commemoration of Yom Hashoah in our Jewish schools offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on the ways we educate our youth about the historical significance of the holocaust and the many lessons to be gained through the study and immersion in this critical event in Jewish history and experience. My colleague and friend, Jake Wirtschafter, an excellent Jewish History teacher and DeLeT Alumni leader posted his thoughts here on the 21st Century JewishEd Blog on the state of Holocaust Education in the 21st Century. Last year, Jake Facing History honored with Margot Stern Strom award for his excellence in teaching the field of Holocaust Education.

Like Jake, I am concerned with the future of how we educate young Jews about the Shoah.  While the Shoah Foundation has dutifully dedicated immense resources to capturing the voices of many survivors and archived them for a myriad of uses, this does not fully replicate the unique value afforded by the sharing of first hand accounts of their narratives.  However, as time passes and survivors continue to age, less and less holocaust survivors remain available, either because they have tied or are become unable to communicate. This presents a great challenge to creating the unique personal connection necessary to allow Jewish youth to connect with the narrative of the holocaust as part of their personal narrative and not just as another narrative in Jewish history. Zionist/Israel education has struggled as well with maintaining a connection with Jewish youth in their relationship to the establishment of the state of Israel, but more on that next week in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut.

As the 21st century progresses, Jewish educators will need to determine the message of holocaust education.  Will we focus on the need to confront genocide in the present global reality? Will we focus on the holocaust as a primary part of the large Zionist narrative? Will the holocaust be used to confront anti-Semitism and promote Jewish survivalism? Will we focus our holocaust lesson on teaching tolerance of the other?

Currently, thousands of high school seniors from across the world, including over a hundred from my own school, find themselves in Poland as part of the March of the Living. The BJE-LA organizes the Los Angeles contingent’s program. This week, Jewish Journal editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman, provided an editorial as a letter to his son, one of my school’s seniors participating in the MOTL, which brings up several critiques of this program as a tool for experiential Holocaust education. Despite his concerns, Rob, being the great parent he is, chose to allow his son to make his own decision in experiencing this journey.

The March of Living experience provides a unique first hand encounter with major sites from the Holocaust’s narrative, within a larger narrative of renewal found in the departure from Poland and arrival in Israel in time for the commemoration of Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and the celebrations Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). One of the central components of the MOTL experience is the involvement of survivors who participate in the experience with the students.  Critiques of this process have come from many directions, including survivors (see Jake’s post), religion Zionists and Israeli filmmakers, such as Yoav Shamir, whose film Defamation severely critiques the use of the March of the Living’s imprint on Israeli youth.

If experiential programs that bring students directly to the site will not satisfy critics, and will be limited by the lack of access to survivors, what other programs will be able to fill the gap.  Facing History, an in depth curricular program, has invested great resources into training and developing teachers within Jewish and General educational settings to nurture democracy and fight bigotry in ethics education utilizing historical frameworks, including the history of the Holocaust, to foster a more ethical and knowledgeable populace for the 21st century.

Centropa seeks to bring to life the narratives of Jewish life in Central Europe before and after WWII through the use of archival materials.  After investing in bringing Jewish educators to Central Europe to learn together about the Jewish past and present and the central European Jewish communities, Centropa has created numerous curriculums and a central web space called Centropa Student to facilitate the use of their materials within a school setting to foster a direct connection to Jewish life in Central Europe. From my own school, three faculty members have participated, including two non-Jewish history teachers.  One of whom, Nick Holton, who blogs about his work at, has created an impressive project for his 10th grade world history course that utilizes the 21st Century tool of digital storytelling to foster an academic and emotional connection between students and their historical subjects.

Nick describes the project:
Students will engage in a digital storytelling project on the Holocaust. Through these projects, students will need to grapple with some of the greater questions surrounding the Holocaust, their own feelings and emotions and the basic historical content. As they do so they will be writing about these issues in one of two ways. The first is through an “alter-ego” that will experience the Holocaust in its many parts. This “alter-ego” can be fictional or non-fictional. The choice is the students. The second option is a more literal and personal approach through a digital diary. This format allows the student to recap each day of class, the questions posed, the lesson learned and the emotional results it fostered. When finished with the writing, students will then turn their stories or journals into seven to ten minute films or digital stories completely constructed and narrated by them. These films will then be uploaded to your student portfolio network on for viewing by other students, faculty and, of course, parents. This project will complete the courses necessary requirements of Holocaust content, technology integration and 21st century media literacy.

Here is a sample of the project from Nick’s former students (and my current student) Rachel Bornstein:

Another model of bringing holocaust narratives to life through student voices comes from Jennifer Rudick Zunikoff, a master Jewish educator and storyteller, who works with students at Goucher College in a course titled “Oral History of the Holocaust”. Jennifer teaches her students the craft of taking oral histories from survivors and then retelling their stories through the art of storytelling. While Jennifer will have to consider how to college the oral histories one survivors are unavailable, the mastery comes from the students abilities to translate the information they collect and construct a living testament to the person, life and experience of the survivor’s story they are telling.

In the 21st century, the future of holocaust and Shoah education will need to transform into a multi-faceted endeavor that integrates experiential, curricula and self-directed learning efforts. Above all, we need to create ways for students to interact with historical artifacts and through the process of bringing them to life once again because personally transformed. Only through a process of personal transformation when interacting with the Shoah will Never Again be truly possible in the 21st century through Holocaust education. This requires renewed investment not just in the collecting of artifacts in museums, but in training educators in order to allow them to creatively consider the great task of the future of educating Jewish youth about and through the Shoah.

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