Thursday, October 23, 2014 Tishri 29, 5775

Corbett Ceremoniously Signs Holocaust Education Bill at Philly Federation

August 6, 2014 By:
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(From left) Federation CEO Naomi Adler, Gov. Tom Corbett and Federation president Sherrie Savett, were all smiles at the ceremonial signing on Aug. 6, 2014. Photo by Amishai Gottlieb.

In a ceremonial signing of the state's Holocaust and genocide education legislation on Wednesday, advocates of the bill appeared to have put aside their differences.

Gov. Tom Corbett symbolically signed the legislation — which had actually been approved and signed at the end of June — at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City before state legislators, Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans, as well as some of the nonprofit leaders and private citizens who played a significant role in shaping the law. The event put a neat end to a process that was at times not pretty, even though the legislation ultimately passed unanimously in both the State House and Senate. 

Corbett, a Republican who is seeking re-election in November, said it was a pleasure "to have the opportunity to sign a bill that is just so much common sense and sad in that it required a bill because it does not require a law to remember history, to remember lives, to remember families, to remember institutions that have been permanently changed." 

Teaching about the Holocaust and genocide, he said, ensures that younger generations "understand that there are people who are plain evil, and they will take action against their fellow man or woman, and you must never let down your defense."

The law calls for providing teachers with Holocaust education and training; directs the state's Department of Education to create a statewide curriculum with the help of organizations like the Shoah Foundation; and establishes a statewide study to determine which schools are teaching the Holocaust. It also calls for the Department of Education to require schools to offer such instruction if, after two years, fewer than 90 percent of schools are teaching the subject.  

The law is expected to go into effect with the 2015-2016 school year.

There are only five states that require schools to teach Holocaust curriculum: New Jersey, New York, Florida, Illinois and California. Some advocates, in what became the primary point of division, had seen adding Pennsylvania to that list as essential to the bill's success. 

Corbett said in an interview with the Jewish Exponent after the ceremony that if re-elected, he would take steps to ensure that the legislation is effective.

"You have to understand, I actually taught history and civics at the ninth-grade level, so I believe in the teaching of history. This is not a difficult discussion at all for me to talk to the secretary of education and to get this done," he said. "There are some areas of the state that are probably going to say, 'Why do we need to teach this?' and it will take educating them on its importance.

State Rep. Brendan Boyle, who proposed Holocaust education legislation with a mandate last summer that failed in the House with a 99-99 vote, had been a vocal supporter of requiring the curriculum but still praised the bill at the ceremony. 

The legislation was the product "of a group and collaborative effort," said Boyle, who won the Demomcratic primary in May to replace Rep. Allyson Schwartz in the U.S. House of Representatives. "It actually in many ways was democracy at its most frustrating, but at its best."

He described advocates as working "independently and collaboratively as part of the same team." But that did not always appear to be the case. 

Leaders of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which lobbies in Harrisburg on behalf of Jewish federations from around the state, had been among those who did not see a mandate as realistic given the reluctance of Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, to put additional requirements on schools.

The PJC's stance had made the organization a target of Rhonda Fink-Whitman, who produced a video that went viral showing the lack of Holocaust knowledge among college students in Pennsylvania, and had been among the most vocal supporters of a mandate. In a video, she accused the organization of committing "sabotage." Fink-Whitman was at Thursday's ceremony and took pictures with some of the legislators and Federation officials.

Those disagreements were hinted at but put behind them at the ceremony. 

The Pennsylvania Jewish community "is a very diverse group, with very strong opinions," said Matt Handel, chairman of the PJC. "Not all of those opinions work together and some are expressed quite loudly, but we share certain basic principles," including how to "find the best path forward."

In this instance, Handel said, they all agreed that "in this Commonwealth, we need to have the best possible education on Holocaust, genocide and human rights violations, and ensure that it's available and reaches all of our students in this state."

The speakers emphasized the importance of teaching the subject and mentioned the survivors and veterans in attendance.

"What makes me the happiest about today is to actually be able to look the Holocaust survivors I know in the eyes and tell them that we fulfilled a promise we made to you that we would never forget in Pennsylvania," said Boyle. 

David Tuck, a Polish-born survivor of the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps, is among the most active survivors in terms of telling his story to students around Pennsylvania, said Chuck Feldman, president of the Holocaust Awarness Museum and Education Center at the Klein JCC. According to his count, Tuck spoke to more than 10,000 students around the state last year. He hopes the legislation will open up additional opportunities. 

The law "means a lot to me," said Tuck, "because people are forgetting it, and they're not teaching it. It's something I went through, and I don't want to forget it, and I don't want people to forget it." 

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