June 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

If Holocaust education in U.S. public schools is to live up to the commitment of “never again,” some experts believe that teach­ing the subject hand-in-hand with other gen­ocides is what truly enables such efforts to in­fluence future generations. Linda Milstein—a volunteer at CChange, one of the many Hol­ocaust centers providing materials, consulta­tions, resources, and training to educators in New Jersey—says state-level Holocaust edu­cation requirements in America can work to “hopefully prevent [genocides] from happen­ing in the future.”

“If we want to try to prevent genocides and major abuses of human rights from happen­ing, then the Holocaust becomes the exemplar of how a genocide developed and was carried out, and the effect that it had,” she says.

But simply having a state-level mandate does not ensure that this material becomes a substantive part of K-12 education. Individual educators are tasked with creating substantive classes, and funds must be allotted for pre-ser­vice and in-service teacher education, curric­ular development, coordination, and assess­ment.

Yet a public mandate still has symbol­ic value. A recent brouhaha in Pennsylvania highlights the passion of survivors and their children to ensure that schools teach the Hol­ocaust, and how that meshes with political re­alities. Rhonda Fink-Whitman, daughter of a survivor, started a personal lobbying effort for Pennsylvania to mandate statewide Holocaust education when a legislator she met at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia told her about his prob­lems passing a mandate bill.

For her effort, Fink-Whitman made a short video in which she interviewed college stu­dents from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. “The girl from New York and the girl from New Jersey were able to give me names, facts, figures, times, dates, places, and the kids from Pennsylvania couldn’t even form those sentences—because Holocaust and geno­cide education was mandated in New York and New Jersey since 1994,” she says.

Getting a state mandate is not so simple, as Hank Butler has learned. Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, says his organization had been working on Holocaust education for a couple of decades, and specifically on a mandate bill since 2009, when the state cut off the $60,000 in annual funding going to the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council. Opposition to the mandate throughout the education establishment cen­tered on the fear of setting a precedent of the state requiring a course curriculum for schools to teach a subject.

Now, a recently passed Pennsylvania bill represents a compromise: the department of education will develop curricular options us­ing Holocaust professionals, which will be dis­tributed to all of the state’s public schools; for schools that decide to use these options, the state will pay for teachers to be trained, and they will get continuing education cred­its; then, two years after implementation, the state’s Board of Education will do a study de­termining which schools are teaching these subjects and which are not. If less than 90% of schools are teaching the subjects, then the Board of Education will require that all schools teach them.

New Jersey—the state that has probably had the greatest success in mandated Holo­caust education—got an early boost from for­mer governor Thomas Kean, whose father was one of the few U.S. Representatives who pro­tested the ban on Jewish immigration to the U.S. from Nazi Germany. Kean set up New Jer­sey’s Holocaust Council through an executive order in 1982, and the state legislature funded it at $125,000.

But state mandates are not always actual­ly funded by the state, nor do they always have a superstructure in place to ensure their effec­tiveness. Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Educa­tion, says, “If you push for a mandate, there are arguments against it. Many educators felt that having a mandate would have people teach­ing a subject they weren’t familiar or comfort­able with.” New Jersey law, therefore, stipulates that the state’s Holocaust commission will de­velop materials and train teachers. “Just be­cause there is a mandate, if there is no plan of action on how to implement and at least get it into the schools—just having a mandate is of no value in itself,” says Winkler.

New Jersey also decided to make genocide education a part of mandated Holocaust edu­cation. The greater inclusiveness, according to Winkler, has made it easier to get Holocaust education into venues like urban centers that previously claimed they had no Jewish con­nections and hence did not need to talk about the Holocaust.

Unlike in New Jersey, the Holocaust-edu­cation mandate in New York does not provide funding, and has no centralized organization to create materials and train teachers. Eliza­beth Edelstein, director of education at the Mu­seum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, says, “There are multiple forums that bring together representatives from educational systems, cul­tural institutions, and institutions of higher ed­ucation, all of whom create materials and offer courses for teachers in New York about the Hol­ocaust.”

Illinois passed the first U.S. Holocaust edu­cation mandate in 1990, and in 2005 the ed­ucation was extended to include other gen­ocides. But the mandate is unfunded, leaving organizations like the Illinois Holocaust Muse­um—which was instrumental in getting the mandate passed—to do what it can to fill in the gap. The museum runs more than a doz­en professional development trainings on the Holocaust and genocide, but needs to seek funding to cover the training cost as well as re­imbursement to public schools for bringing in substitute teachers.

Speaking from her own experience and not on behalf of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, Noreen Brand, the museum’s director of edu­cation, says, “My idea is that states shouldn’t have a mandate unless you have funding to do teacher training and you have a program for pre-service education that teaches teachers how to teach the mandated subject.” Not hav­ing adequate training, she adds, “causes peo­ple to do random activities, using poor litera­ture and making poor choices.”

In Florida, Linda Medvin—who chairs the Commissioner’s Task Force on Holocaust Ed­ucation for the state’s Department of Educa­tion—emphasizes the need to move Holo­caust education from the Holocaust survivor community into the hands of educators. “The dichotomy is teaching the Holocaust through memory or through context and history,” she says. “The importance now, 75 years later, is to teach through context so it moves forward.”

Florida’s Holocaust-education mandate was passed in 1994. Medvin says she is trans­forming the task force into an education or­ganization by bringing in educational profes­sionals to write curriculums, do research, and develop an online course providing back­ground information for teachers about the Holocaust. Teacher professional development happens through nine—and soon 10—task-force sites, which receive $100,000 a year in dis­cretionary funding that must be approved by the state legislature.

With the right leadership, even a state with­out a mandate can bring the Holocaust into public education. Michael Abramson, whose state has no mandate, chairs the North Caroli­na Council on the Holocaust. The North Caro­lina Department of Public Instruction, headed by State Superintendent June Atkinson, sup­ports the council to the tune of $35,000 an­nually. “[Atkinson] says every school [in North Carolina] has been asked to have a class on the Holocaust and genocide,” says Abramson, add­ing that Atkinson gives continuing education credit and pays for substitute-teacher costs for the council’s eight workshops, which each serve 60–90 educators.

Since North Carolina does not exercise significant central control over curriculum, Abramson carefully targets his message to both the politics and preconceived notions of his audience to get superintendents and high school principals on board for Holocaust edu­cation, often convincing them that the Holo­caust was more than a Jewish event.

Regarding the possibility of a Holocaust-education mandate in North Carolina, Abram­son says, “I don’t even know if that would work. I’ve noticed the only way to push this is the re­tail business of going into a school system, shaking hands, meeting [a] teacher, having a speaker.”

By Michele Alperin/JNS.org

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