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ADL Program Gives Educators a Look at the Shoah, Up Close and Personal

December 11, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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Rabbi Craig Axler of Congregation Beth Or took out a Torah to show to a group of "Bearing Witness" participants.
Growing up as the daughter of a German mother and a Polish father, Regina Weyer of Phoenixville said that she's probably more familiar with the Holocaust than many other Catholics. A first-generation American, she said that she thinks her upbringing has influenced her teaching on the subject to sixth-graders at St. Basil the Great School, a parochial school in Kimberton. There, during a small unit of the curriculum, her students read Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, and learn about what happened in Europe leading up to the Holocaust.

But even she found "a gold mine of materials" through her experiences as a 2008-09 participant in a Holocaust-education program geared toward Catholic educators, learning how to present accurate historical and religious information to her classes.

Randi Boyette, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League's Eastern Pennsylvania/Delaware office, explained that "Bearing Witness," as the program is called, started in the 1990s as a national ADL forum, and then was implemented in many regions across the country. This was the third year of the Philadelphia regional program, a partnership between the ADL and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Participants don't have to necessarily be Catholic, said Boyette; they just have to teach in parochial schools.

Boyette said that this year, 30 educators from across Pennsylvania, as well as a few from Delaware and New Jersey, participated in the Philadelphia regional program, held over the summer. Throughout the four-day residential program, the teachers were immersed in a series of presentations on the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and Catholic-Jewish relations. An important component of this, she added, was that they also received curriculum training, resources and materials to use in their own classrooms.

The conference also included Catholic-Jewish dialogue between lecturers Father Dennis McManus, a Georgetown University professor, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. On the third day of the summer session, the attendees visited the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Other activities included a model Shabbat dinner on the seminar's second night, hosted by Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or, a Reform shul in Maple Glen. Boyette said that the senior rabbi, along with Rabbi Craig Axler, even brought out two Torahs, and that this was apparently "the first time [they'd] ever come so close" to one.

A follow-up session was held on Nov. 11 at Gratz College in Melrose Park, where they were able to explore the Oral History Archives housed there; a second follow-up session will be held in the spring, around Yom Hashoah, when there will be an evaluation of the yearlong program, and an exchange of lesson plans revolving around tolerance and diversity.

"It's not just about Holocaust education," explained Boyette. "It's about prejudice, biases, anti-Semitism and Catholic-Jewish relations in general. It links to other things, to see where hate leads. It's important we teach it ... we're building bridges of understanding."

To date, according to Boyette, 89 Catholic educators representing 61 different schools have attended the regional program.

More to Learn in Washington

After a teacher has attended the regional component, he or she is eligible to go to Washington, D.C., for an advanced, national session, which can include a visit to Israel at the conclusion of the program.

Though her year in "Bearing Witness" is not yet over, Lynne Snyder of Allentown is already trying to make connections with the Jewish community. She works at Seton Academy in Bethlehem, where she teaches literature and religion to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, and part of her instruction included taking some of her students to see a local performance of "The Diary of Anne Frank." This was followed by a kosher lunch and a roundtable discussion with students from the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley there.

For Jennifer Kuglar of Glenside, a Catholic history and religion teacher, for grades seven and eight, at St. Catherine of Siena School in Horsham, her involvement did not end after she attended the national forum in Washington in 2004; she traveled with the group on "March of the Living" to Poland the following year. She also went with fellow members to Israel; pictures of Jerusalem that she purchased on her trip hang in her classroom.

Since her participation, she now gives insider briefings for the ADL, speaks with regional directors and facilitates community-based discussions on confronting anti-Semitism.

She said that she has also become a leader at her school when it comes to Holocaust education, as well as on issues like bullying and diversity, frequently using materials she's acquired through the program.

"This has totally impacted the way I look at everything," noted Kuglar. She said that she wished she "had learned more about this as a kid," and when she was preparing to become a teacher.

These lessons on diversity, she continued, "affect your life," especially when you realize "that the Holocaust didn't happen overnight."

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