‘This Isn’t Just History’: Seminar Gives K-12 Teachers Tools to Teach Lessons of the Holocaust
Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, 23 middle school and high school teachers and museum staff took part in an intensive, virtual two-day program on Holocaust education. In interviews with The Algemeiner, participants described the project as more relevant than ever — coming just as US Jewish communities were reeling from yet another antisemitic attack on a synagogue.
The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous’ (JFR) 2022 Advanced Seminar brought together educators from Alabama, Florida, New Jersey, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas for graduate-level coursework on Jan. 15-16.
Kelly Sorrell of Pizitz Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama, said the JFR program helped set her on a “path of learning” — acquainting her with knowledge she wasn’t readily given during her upbringing in the Deep South.
“The Holocaust was not anything I had ever taught before, and I learned very little about it when I was in school,” Sorrell told The Algemeiner. “My first year of teaching the Holocaust, I was actually just as clueless as the children were, and found I needed to enrich my own education to guide their learning.”
“When I have the background knowledge, I can steer my students into finding the answers to their questions,” she added.
Sorrell said that every year, her students routinely have the same three questions: Why did Hitler hate the Jews? Why didn’t the Jews just leave? And why didn’t they fight back?
“The first year I taught the Holocaust, I didn’t really have answers to give them,” she said. “But now, I have a very strong base of knowledge of that and I continue to learn more and more as I attend more workshops and seminars.”
All participants were previously selected to participate in the JFR Summer Institute, and currently teach about the Holocaust in their respective roles as educators or museum staff. Supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the seminar brought in lecturers from experts at Amherst College, Texas A&M University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among other institutions.
Jill Tejeda of Livingston High School in New Jersey — a veteran of several JFR seminars and conferences who leads a one-year course for seniors on the Holocaust and genocide — said the program “enhances everything I do, gives me more material to use in my classes, and has made me grow.”
“My class had a whole conversation about the importance of this type of education,” she told The Algemeiner, recalling a recent lesson on the historian Edward B. Westermann’s work on the role of alcohol consumption in the Third Reich’s crimes.
“The kids want to know. They don’t want to be shielded from anything, and are saying that kids need to learn all of this stuff to know what is right and what is wrong,” she said. “I think that there’s a politically charged effort not to teach some of this material, but it’s a deadly mistake not to.”
Several of this year’s participants also noted that continuing instances of antisemitism, which saw an alarming rise in 2021, made the JFR coursework all too resonant in contemporary classrooms.
Judy Schancupp, a member of the Commission on the Holocaust in Sandy Springs, Georgia, told The Algemeiner that recent events near her hometown had demonstrated precisely why this kind of programming was important.
“We need to educate students about so it doesn’t happen again,” Schancupp said, referencing two separate discoveries last year of swastikas in Cobb County, Georgia high schools that stoked a national outcry.
A new program at the center brings in Holocaust scholars and other experts in the field to teach children and adults firsthand, Schancupp said. During a past JFR seminar, she took a tour of Auschwitz with several professors brought in by the program.
“I can’t overemphasize what it’s like to have professors who know what they’re talking about walk you through Auschwitz and take you to areas that no one goes to,” she said. “We visited a hospital in Auschwitz, where the commandant lived, and then we went to the mass graves, and there’s nothing there — but you have the professor there to tell us what we’re looking at.”
Participants in this year’s JFR program, which partly coincided with the recent hostage-taking at a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue, watched in dismay the latest antisemitic assault on a house of worship.
“That was not a very good weekend,” said participant Amy Frake, an associate director of education at the Holocaust Museum in Houston, Texas, who learned of the incident right after a lecture on modern day antisemitism.
She told The Algemeiner that the episode was especially difficult because a colleague’s daughter personally knows Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel who was taken hostage for over 10 hours along with three others.
And it was compounded when the FBI initially declared during the crisis that the attack was “not specifically related to the Jewish community,” but rather only focused on the imprisonment of a US federal inmate held nearby. The perpetrator, Malik Faisal Akram, was apparently convinced that a prominent New York rabbi could help secure the release of the convict.
“If you learned about antisemitism, it is very clear that this has everything to do with antisemitism and the very twisted way that people often see Jewish people,” Flake remarked. “I don’t know, maybe there needs to be a JFR for law enforcement too.”
“These kinds of incidents are another reason to recommit and remember why we do this,” Frake said. “The fact that this isn’t just history, is something that’s happening today, and doesn’t seem to have an endpoint is the reason that I do what I do everyday.”