A New-Old Approach to Holocaust Education

by Rabbi Benjamin Berger

It is often noted that Holocaust education is one of the most pressing and vexing educational challenges of our time given the passage of time and waning number of survivors. Nowhere is this challenge more pressing than on the college campus, where reasonably competing interests, programs and pleasures are often a priority for our students. Further, years of childhood holocaust education have left many students dubious that they can learn more or fearful of opening up the emotional Pandora’s box that such education might cause. In particular, on the college campus where the Holocaust can be conveyed as just one of many genocides, the Holocaust loses its uniqueness as a historical event both for our Jewish students and the world.

Despite years of compelling programming on many campuses including speakers, films, and other memorial programs, we struggle to provide broad reaching and meaningful forms of Holocaust awareness on our campuses. This challenge recently inspired us, at the Ohio State University Hillel, to experiment with a new-old approach to Holocaust education bolstered by our existing engagement strategy.

By tapping into the ancient wisdom and timeless resonance of the Pesach seder, this effort provided an ordered and participatory outline for students to have a meaningful encounter with the Holocaust. After recreating, for our context, a uniquely powerful Yom HaShoah Haggadah originally edited and compiled by Rabbi Avi Weiss, we trained 20 student engagement entrepreneurs and leaders to lead Sedarim for their peers. This Haggadah taps into the timeless model of the Pesach Haggadah to convey some of the lessons and experiences of the Holocaust in an introspective, intense and emotive way. Emanating from the text of this Haggadah in combination with recordings of survivor testimony the themes of story, memory, and responsibility are drawn out in a multi-sensory experience.

The theme of “story” relates not only to the need to continually to tell the stories of individual victims and survivors but also to the importance of allowing students to understand the content within the context of their lives. Through conversation woven into the seder, students are encouraged to tell of their first encounters with the holocaust, family stories of connection and how they might tell the story to their children. Story is essential to the work of engaging college students who are animated by personal connection and contribution rather than traditional didactic forms of learning.

The activation of memory rather than the telling of history is the next component of the seder that make it a unique educational experience. Memory is personal and like the exodus, the Holocaust demands that we personally live as if we were there, even if for a moment. Throughout the seder the participants are instructed to act in certain ways that are meant to evoke an emotional response. They are asked to remove shoes and jewelry, eat potato peels and wear yellow stars. On paper these instructions feel awkward and maybe even manipulative but they proved to be powerful symbolic acts to which the students movingly responded.

Finally, this experience reminded and reinforced to our students that the requirement to never forget falls upon them. In this seder they told the story, they weren’t told the story. This message of personal responsibility is one the most often repeated but rarely made accessible unless one becomes a specialist. This student led seder is a model for peer led education, the key to our educational vision at OSU Hillel. Further the conversation that took place throughout the seder indicated that participants fuel the depth of the experience. It cannot be left to someone else. Like Pesach, a moving and memorable seder requires active participation. This message is taken with the participants back into their lives.

Neither passage of time nor remaining survivors has ever been a barrier to remembering the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah is the strongest educational tool we have to keep that eternal story in the collective memories of the Jewish people. It should be noted that the Haggadah does not seek to retell the story with historical accuracy and intricacy, if it did it would suffice to print out of the opening chapters of the book of Exodus and move on. Instead, it recreates the experiences of the exodus in a way that evokes or activates memory. It induces an experience, one that requires the fullness of our mind, our bodies and our souls to truly recount the story of having once been slaves led to freedom. Our memories of it are as strong as ever because we tell it as if we left Egypt ourselves. So too, we must live as if we too lived through the Holocaust and we must continue to tell the story each generation.

Rabbi Benjamin Berger is the Senior Jewish Educator at the Ohio State University Hillel.