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Teacher Bears Witness, Then Brings Her Students the Apt Message

September 3, 2009 By:
Jennifer Kugler
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FIRST PERSON

When I was a Catholic high school student, I remember viewing a Holocaust documentary. I can still see the piles of nameless bodies, the faces haunted by vacant stares.

It was an exceptionally powerful experience, and helped ignite in me a passion for social justice.

And yet, what strikes me now is that the film dehumanized the victims all over again -- stripped them of their identities, their humanity, their stories. And so the Holocaust became -- as it so often can become in the annals of history -- an abstraction. It was a monstrous evil, but lacking context or real connection with my own life.

Six years ago, I participated in the "Bearing Witness" program -- a national program developed by the Anti-Defamation League and the Catholic Church to give Catholic-school teachers the knowledge and resources to teach their students about the relationship between the two religious communities, as well as about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

"Bearing Witness" gave me what I'd always lacked in my understanding of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust -- the human context and personal connection.

During the weeklong program, we visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, also in Washington. We listened to the stories of those who had survived. We visited a synagogue, participated in a model Shabbat service, and discussed how to make the Holocaust relevant to our young charges.

And yet, my education on the subject was just beginning.

In 2005, I traveled to Poland as part of the advanced "Bearing Witness" program. I participated in the 2005 "March of the Living," which took place on Yom Hashoah -- Holocaust Memorial Day -- at Auschwitz. That was a painful trip for me, and the question I could not get away from was this: Would I, as a faithful Catholic, have risked my life and the lives of my children to hide a Jewish neighbor?

A Two-Fold Struggle

My struggle to understand the Holocaust is, in part, also a struggle to understand myself. I grieve for those who died in the Shoah, feel revulsion for the perpetrators, abhorrence for the collaborators, and disgust for those who were bystanders. Yet haven't I been a bystander myself to other genocides in the world -- in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Sudan?

Later that year, I once again took flight with the ADL -- this time to Israel.

Our group of Catholic-school teachers traveled to the Galilee, the Golan Heights, to Jerusalem, Masada and other sites. If Poland shook my faith to its foundation, then Israel -- as the place where Jesus lived and died as a Jew -- helped make that foundation stronger than ever.

And I came to understand how I could take action in my own life.

Once again, the ADL offered a way for me to turn my beliefs into actions. I worked with the staff of our regional ADL office to help bring the "Bearing Witness" program to our area.

In fact, this past summer marked our fourth regional program, and I now have more than 100 colleagues in Pennsylvania and Delaware who share my passion for teaching our respective students about Judaism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Additionally, I became an official trainer for the ADL, and as such, I facilitate workshops that help students and educators understand and challenge bias, bigotry and bullying within their school communities. I am also one of the few non-Jewish facilitators for ADL's "Confronting Anti-Semitism" program, and help Jewish teenagers understand and respond to anti-Semitism in its various forms.

I have also brought all of this back to my own classroom and school. In that vein, I teach my students about Judaism and anti-Semitism. We regularly invite Holocaust survivors to speak to middle-schoolers. And through participation in the ADL's "No Place for Hate" program, our students get to understand that challenging prejudice and hate, while at the same time respecting others, is part of what it really means to live their Catholic faith.

I do believe this makes a difference. I've seen the light go on in my students' eyes when they get the connection between the lessons of history, and what's going on in their own school and communities.

Now, instead of "teaching" the Holocaust, I seek to inspire children.

After listening to the testimony of one particular Holocaust survivor, one of my students said: "I want to do something -- I need to do something."

If my experience with the "Bearing Witness" program and my work with the ADL empowers my own classes to step outside themselves and look for ways to make a positive impact on the world around them, then it has made a considerable difference.

Jennifer Kugler lives in Glenside with her husband and 10-year-old twins. She teaches history and theology to seventh- and eighth-grade students at St. Catherine of Siena School in Horsham.

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