Tree of Life first anniversary: How to teach tough topics to our kids | Opinion

A memorial to the victims of the Tree of Life massacre outside the synagogue. (daveynin/Flickr)

By Boaz Dvir

When I heard about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year, I thought about my grandfather. Growing up in Israel in the 1970s, I became used to the constant threat of terrorism, but I failed to shake off one nagging fear—that my Saba (Grandpa in Hebrew) would be gunned down at his shul (synagogue in Yiddish).

He survived the Holocaust, to some extent, by tapping into recollections of Hebrew prayers and Talmud lessons he learned at a Hasidic boarding school in Warsaw. After World War II, he arrived in the newborn Jewish state with twin 2-year-olds and a frail wife, the only member of a Czech-Jewish family to survive the Nazis’ systematic effort to murder every Jew.

My Saba fought in wars, worked as a delivery man, and tried to adjust to life without parents and siblings. What kept him going was attending services and study sessions at his shul.

This is where I pictured terrorists gunning not just for his body, but his soul. I knew they could never achieve the latter, but I was haunted by visions of the former.

To me, nothing could have been worse than my Saba surviving the Nazi concentration camps only to die violently in his shul.

When I heard that a shooter yelling “all Jews must die” killed 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, I imagined what my Saba would’ve said. Although he died in 2003—of natural causes—I could still hear his booming voice.

Educate the kinder (kids in Yiddish).

Discussions about the one-year anniversary of the Pittsburgh attack, which also injured four police officers and two congregants, rightly touch on such topics as immigration and gun control.

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After all, the shooter had posted online comments against a refugee-settling organization housed in the Tree of Life building and fired an assault rifle. But they must also include education.

Our schools have an opportunity—and, many say, an obligation—to instill students with the knowledge and skills to develop empathy and wash away hate.

Many teachers want to include such instruction in their lesson plans. They want to tackle difficult subjects like the Holocaust, slavery, and bigotry. But they lack the pedagogy and support to do so effectively.

Many educators realize what engaging instruction of hard-to-teach-yet-vital topics can do for students: It can help sharpen critical thinking, prompt civic involvement, and infuse K-12 education with meaning.

Yet, according to a 2018 study by Schoen Consulting, four out of 10 young Americans possess little to no awareness about the Holocaust. Two out of three have never heard of or know very little about Auschwitz, where my Savta (Hebrew for grandma) lost her family, youth and health.

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It is safe to describe many students’ genocide and human rights knowledge as limited.

To empower students, we must give teachers proper training and tools. Organizations around the country have created a great deal of content about difficult topics.

That can overwhelm educators. They need easy access to age-appropriate lesson plans and instructional resources, as well as curated-and-customized material that helps them meet state standards.

That is why my Penn State colleagues and I recently launched the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative, a partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Act 70 Advisory Board.

Passed by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 2014, Act 70 guides schools on Holocaust, genocide and human-rights violation instruction.

Working with the Education Department, and such Act 70 partners as the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education, we’re planning teacher trainings around the Commonwealth. The first—a year-long professional-development program that includes an immersive 5-day seminar on Penn State’s University Park campus—begins June 22.

We’re building this initiative not just for but with teachers. We do not have all the answers. In fact, at this point, we mostly have questions. To boost our exploration, we’ve set up an Educator Advisory Council of 15 teachers from across Pennsylvania.

Let us honor the victims of the Tree of Life shooting—as well as of genocides and human-rights violations throughout history, including my late grandparents—by making difficult-subject instruction a powerful part of our children’s education.

Boaz Dvir directs the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Initiative at Penn State, where he also teaches journalism at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.