Why does NYHS have no formal Holocaust education?
Three years ago, an impactful Poland-Israel trip filled the gap. Since then, the gap has largely been left empty.
March 2, 2022
The cold springtime air turns breath into fog. Dirt crunches below marching feet. Many students drape Israeli flags over their shoulders. Fay Koyfman (’19) and her classmates tour the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland with Max, a Majdanek survivor. He shows the students where, in the freezing rain, he stood for roll call. He brings them to where he was tortured.
This was on the first NYHS March of the Living Poland-Israel trip in 2019, the only form of organized Holocaust education at NYHS at the time. Head of School Jason Feld hoped to establish the trip as a permanent senior capstone experience. But due to the pandemic, the trip has been canceled for three years straight. The only other form of Holocaust education is a short commemoration program held on Yom HaShoah.
Without this trip, the only Modern Orthodox Jewish high school in the Pacific Northwest currently has no formal Holocaust education.
According to Washington state law, public and private schools are “strongly encouraged” to teach about the Holocaust but are not required to do so.
Dean of Academics Lindsey Mutschler was surprised to find that the school had no formal curriculum when she joined NYHS in 2021. Mutschler served on the advisory committee of Seattle’s Holocaust Education Center for five years before coming to NYHS, taught Holocaust history on the middle school level, trained teachers on Holocaust education, and wrote curriculum for public schools. “I am surprised there isn’t a formal [class],” Mutschler said. “Typically that lives in a world history course.”
Lackluster Holocaust education is a nationwide trend, and it has consequences. According to the Claims Conference, 41 percent of American millennials believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 11 percent of millenials and Gen-Z believe Jews themselves caused the Holocaust.
NYHS instructor Noah Scheindlin does not cover the Holocaust in his world history course, but he does discuss it in his course on the modern Middle East. The lessons focus on the memory of the Holocaust in Israeli society rather than its historic details.
Scheindlin feels conflicted about how to be intentional with his curriculum choices. “If I devote only a few lessons to this topic, I risk minimizing the catastrophe and/or teaching it poorly,” Scheindlin said. “But if I devote an entire course or unit(s), then the totality of Jewish history can be reduced to only one tragic chapter.”
Head of School Jason Feld agrees. “On the one hand, we don’t want to reduce the Shoah to a single day or ceremony, and on the other hand it’s much more than a historic event,” Feld said. “I do believe that there’s certain core knowledge that all of our students should know.” Nevertheless, Feld acknowledges that defining “core knowledge” is difficult due to the vastness of the Holocaust.
Resources exist to navigate this dilemma. Mutschler, for example, recommends taking advantage of local resources. “There’s a rich resource that the Holocaust Center produces of survivor testimony through video of local survivors in the area,” Mutschler said. “People who are now children of survivors are speaking to make it connected to our community.”
In addition, Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity provides “best practices” for Holocaust education, among other programs and curricula. Mutschler advises against using a typical Holocaust curriculum because it was likely created for a non-Jewish audience. “There’s a high level of background knowledge in this community,” Mutschler said. “You’re not coming at it for the first time like kids at public school might be.”
Mutschler has heard that the reason NYHS doesn’t do anything formal is because students already receive outside education. “I was also told that because it’s a Jewish school it’s unique where you all have grown up learning about this from a young age and so you have a pretty intense exposure to Holocaust education,” Mutschler said.
This is not necessarily true. Sophomore Jenna Kaufthal, whose great-grandparents survived the Holocaust, feels NYHS students lack knowledge. “[We] are missing basic Holocaust education that even public schools teach just because it is part of history,” Kaufthal said. “It should be just as much a priority to have a semester be taught on the Holocaust as it is to teach Tanach, as both are a huge, impactful part of the Jewish people’s history.”
NYHS students come to the school with a range of backgrounds and therefore with different levels of Holocaust knowledge.
However, the majority of students are graduates of Seattle Hebrew Academy, where Head of School Rivy Kletenik focuses on positive messages learned from the Holocaust rather than somber ones. “There are some kids — and I’ve seen in happen more in high school – when they are immersed in Holocaust study, it becomes such a burden, and they don’t want to relate to anything Jewish anymore,” Kletenik said. “In elementary school it’s very important to not frighten, scare the children.”
Chaya Elishevitz, principal of MMSC, the Chabad-Lubavitch day school in Seattle, takes a slightly different approach. She believes Holocaust education should celebrate the current success of the Jewish people. “We look at it from a perspective of how lucky we are, we don’t have to endure what our grandparents endured,” Elishevitz said. “We are able to take the lessons – the sacrifice – that they have done and proudly be Jews.” The students also utilize Seattle Holocaust Center resources, and Elishevitz said the teachers receive training at the Center.
To begin introducing NYHS to formal Holocaust education, Mutschler believes NYHS should implement what she calls an “intentional scope and sequence” in the ninth grade world history course.
Feld takes this even further, saying that multiple classes should cover the topic. “We should be learning about [the Holocaust] or contextualizing it in Torat chaim, in history, in Modern Middle East, in senior seminar,” Feld said. “Different aspects of it should be covered throughout the four years of high school and should be intentionally incorporated into the curriculum of both Judaics, general studies, and student life on campus.”
The purpose for Holocaust education, Mutschler believes, is to learn lessons about hatred, morality, and ultimately what it means to be human. “Holocaust and genocide education is important because that’s basic moral human rights, racism, discrimination, what happens when power is in the hands of a nation minority or majority. All of those basic human morality questions are kind of the purpose of education in my opinion,” Mutscher said. “As educators, what we choose not to teach is just as important as what we chose to teach. What we value – the history that we value – is reflected in the choices we make. So if something’s missing, it begs the question why.”
As educators, what we choose not to teach is just as important as what we chose to teach. What we value – the history that we value – is reflected in the choices we make. So if something’s missing, it begs the question why. — Lindsey Mutchler, NYHS Dean of Academics
As educators, what we choose not to teach is just as important as what we chose to teach. What we value – the history that we value – is reflected in the choices we make. So if something’s missing, it begs the question why.
— Lindsey Mutchler, NYHS Dean of Academics
Feld hopes to bring next year’s senior class to Poland and Israel, and ideally see the trip continue for many years (despite next year being Feld’s last at NYHS). “At the conclusion of what for many kids is their formal Jewish education, as a group, together, it’s important to go through the journey of bearing witness in Poland,” Feld said. “It’s one thing to learn about something, but it’s very different to experience it firsthand — not just the Shoah, but centuries prior to that, the yeshivot, the shtetls, the Chassidic movement, to see what was and what was lost is very heavy and very meaningful.”
Max Glauben, the Majdanek survivor mentioned at the beginning of this story, passed away on Yom HaShoah at age 94. May his memory be a blessing.