Pursuing Justice: Teachers, The New Voice of Never Again

Holocaust+Rendering_PhillyBy Joy Goldstein

Last week plans were unveiled for the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza at 16th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. That beautiful boulevard, designed by the French landscape architect Jacques Gréber to be Philadelphia’s Champs Elysees, is lined with about 90 countries’ flags every summer, a tradition that began in 1976. The flags are placed in alphabetical order, with a few exceptions, including the Israeli flag, which is at 16th and the Parkway, where C. Natan Rapoport’s 1964 sculpture stands, a memorial to the six million Jewish martyrs who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

A plaza will be built, sharing the space with the sculpture that depicts struggle, agony and figures striving for freedom. Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, the distinguished scholar who played a critical role in the creation of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke at the program, “A memorial that speaks to one generation must be renewed for a second generation … Our task in creating this new space is going to be to tell the story of the Holocaust to a new generation in a way that is intellectually informative and emotionally compelling.” I heard the sound bite on the news, and pondered the challenge of teaching the lessons of the Holocaust seventy years after the liberation of the camps, with many of the survivors, liberators and fighters now gone. Who will tell the story of the Holocaust to a new generation in a compelling manner? I’m the child of a Holocaust survivor. I think about it a lot.

Unfortunately, most of the next generation of middle and high school students will not be visiting the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza, and most will not see the USHMM. Neither their parents nor their schools have the resources to take them on such trips. Their teachers are charged with conveying the lessons of the Holocaust to them in a compelling manner, and we pray that they will know enough and, more importantly, care enough to do so.

On a recent Sunday, Leslee Przygodski, the valedictorian at Gratz College’s commencement, who came from Detroit to Philadelphia to graduate with her cohort, described the environment in which she works. For sixteen years, she has been teaching 8th graders in a 100-year old building that is either “blazing hot or freezing cold,” without current textbooks, computer labs, and athletic fields. Her students are poor, largely Latino, and some live in fear of deportation. They play soccer in a park where a young man was recently fatally shot. She asked the audience how many of us would willingly send our children to a substandard school. And she answered for us: none of us would.

The Jewish values that resonate with Leslee, who is not Jewish, are the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and tikkun olam (the responsibility to participate in repairing the world), which Leslee believes is the obligation to promote social justice and equality. “It is up to us to live according to the values that have been emphasized during our time at Gratz. We must ourselves live by the golden rule. And in instances where the golden rule isn’t being followed, when we see injustice, we must not sit silently and do nothing.”

Jennifer Boyer Switala, a teacher in central Pennsylvania and last year’s valedictorian, recounted that some people wondered why she was pursuing a degree in Holocaust and genocide studies because she isn’t “one of them” – she isn’t Jewish. “I study and teach [the Shoah] because … narrow-mindedness … serves no purpose other than to divide humanity… But most of all, I do it because I … do not want to be part of the problem, but part of the solution.”

The challenge in presenting the Holocaust today is not just how to make the history compelling to a new generation. Sadly, the challenge is how to make the history compelling to youth whose daily struggles are incomprehensible. Who will teach the Holocaust to the next generation? The dedicated, courageous, exemplary teachers who study this heinous period in history, because their calling is to promote social justice and equality.

The world would be a better place if all educators were like the students in Gratz College’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies program. They teach in Detroit, central Pennsylvania, rural Missouri, Kansas. They teach on Indian reservations, military bases and in financially strapped school districts.

Commencement speaker Rabbi Steve Gutow, a renowned community activist, urged the graduates to “be the teacher who takes the minds of those she or he is teaching and challenges those minds to take on evil in the world, to learn how to stop poverty and human atrocity.” Can you imagine a world where every teacher would be that teacher?

May is teacher appreciation month.

Joy W. Goldstein is president of Gratz College in Melrose Park, PA.