A Bucks County teacher who's required by law to include Holocaust lessons in her curriculum at a public middle school in South Jersey explains why she's lobbying to get a similar mandate passed in her home state.
Living in the Bucks County suburb of Richboro and teaching about genocide and the Holocaust in South Jersey, Paula Mann knows both the mandated and voluntary sides of Holocaust education.
As a language arts teacher at Bordentown Regional Middle School in Burlington County, Mann is required by state law to teach lessons of the Holocaust and has easy access to Power-Point programs, videos and other resources from the N.J. Commission on Holocaust Education.
As a Jew living in Pennsylvania, she feels driven to get a similar mandate passed in her home state.
“In New Jersey, the resources can’t be beat. When you are mandated to do something, you do it,” Mann said. “You go out of your way to find the survivors and the legacy they have left for you.”
The N.J. Commission on Holocaust Education even arranges trips to Europe so teachers can see firsthand concentration camp sites and other tangible reminders of the Holocaust. Mann went on one such trip last August, attending seminars and visiting seven camps, several cemeteries and the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. She has also brought her students to the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill to see “Dear Esther,” a play based on the story of South Jersey resident Esther Raab, who escaped from the Sobibor death camp.
Driven by the discrepancies she’s seen between the two states, Mann has traveled to Harrisburg to lobby state legislators to pass a Holocaust and genocide education bill that has been languishing since last year. Unlike the New Jersey law that passed in 1994, which mandates education from kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pennsylvania version would begin education in fifth grade.
The bill stalled late last year in the state House’s Education Committee over the word “mandate,” with a weaker bill encouraging voluntary Holocaust education approved by the full House. The Senate’s Appropriations Committee, however, restored the mandate portion of the bill and sent that version to the full Senate, where it has yet to be considered for a vote.
The legislation has divided activists and some Jewish communal professionals who say they would rather see a voluntary measure passed than no legislation at all, which is the feared fate of the current proposal because of Republican opposition to mandates in general.
Philadelphia resident Chuck Feldman, president of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center at the Klein JCC in Northeast Philadelphia, is hopeful that the “mandatory” version will pass.
“We’re waiting, lobbying, emailing,” said Feldman.
In the meantime, the Klein JCC’s education center continues to send 25 Holocaust survivors to speak at public, private and parochial schools in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
“Last year we reached about 35,000 students and gave 268 programs, and this year we’re on target to do 300 programs,” he said. “So Holocaust education is going on, but it’s not universal. We go where we are asked, but getting it mandated in Pennsylvania public schools is necessary.”
Mann’s home school district, Council Rock, passed a resolution supporting the state mandate in March for pro-mandate legislators to use as ammunition for passage, according to school board member Jerold Grupp.
The Council Rock district already offers Holocaust curriculum beginning in elementary school. Mann said fewer districts offer it in central and western parts of the state. Since some districts follow common core state standards that lean toward nonfiction texts, Mann said she worries that not enough students will get exposed to novels about the Holocaust unless they are mandated in the curriculum.
“Yes, survivors are dwindling, but their stories are there,” she said. “It’s a matter of tapping into the resources.”