Monday, May 12, 2008

Teaching about the Shoah

After our community’s Yom Hashoah commemoration, we were talking about why the attendance is so poor.

As a newcomer, I don’t know what it was like in other years, but I didn’t really think it was poor, compared to other places I’ve lived. I can remember only one Yom Hashoah commemoration that had relatively high attendance. It was during a Shabbat evening service (not in competition with Shabbat services as a Thursday night service tends to be), and the year was 1993.

The year was significant because it was the 50th anniversary of the rescue of Jews of Denmark (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rescue_of_the_Danish_Jews for background) and a Danish historian at the local college was speaking.

Ordinarily, however, attendance at Yom Hashoah services tends to be modest almost everywhere. I’m not sure why — is remembering the Holocaust just not a priority for many of us now? Do we expect to be made to feel miserable at the service?

I vote for the latter explanation: we expect to be made to feel miserable. This expectation has been fed partly by misuse of the Shoah (e.g., in the Reform movement’s liturgy for Yom Kippur afternoon) to create a sense of generalized guilt that is, I think, misguided. In any case, our community’s commemoration wasn't like that. We emphasized honoring the memories of the victims through telling some of their stories.

I have more thoughts about teaching about the Shoah in religious school. This can lead to heated discussion, even though a focus on the students’ needs cuts through most of the controversy.

Some congregations – my first Hebrew-school teaching job was in one – mandate a Holocaust course, apparently to honor the memory of the victims. That’s a non-educational reason.

Often, in these congregations, it's mandated for grade 7, probably because that may be the last year for some students. That speaks to an educational reason: it’s seen as the one remaining topic that every student must study.

I’m uncomfortable with that, because it implies that the Holocaust is the capstone of Jewish education, the point to which all our Hebrew-school work of the previous seven or eight years was leading. Furthermore, my experience has been that many seventh-graders haven’t quite reached the stage of cognitive development where they can learn what I would hope to teach, with the result that the subject is trivialized.

I think that the best year for teaching about the Shoah in depth is grade 8, partly because Seymour Rossel’s excellent textbook works well at that level.

Torah Aura’s instant lessons are also excellent and could be used in conjunction with Rossel’s book (following the textbook for the course structure), or can be used for a shorter course at the high-school level. If a school teaches about the Holocaust only in grade 7 or earlier, revisiting it at high-school level, when the capacity for historical reasoning has grown, is a good idea.

On the other hand, some school boards all but prohibit teaching about the Shoah. I was the director of one such school. The school board was fearful of doing anything to which any parent might object, and in a previous year there had been a complaint. I don’t know what took place that year, whether a teacher’s handling of it was inappropriate or whether a family was exceptionally sensitive.

A single complaint is no reason to restrict (or mandate) the teaching of any topic. In other schools, I’ve received isolated complaints about teaching too much about Israel (and, from other parents, not enough about Israel), including death and burial in a class on the Jewish life cycle, and Hebrew (again, both too much and not enough).

Some schools do teach about the Shoah as early as grade 6. We touch on it in grade 4 (in connection with the history of Israel) and grade 5 (in connection with American Jewish history), and our 6th-grade teacher approaches it through films that are appropriate for the grade level. We do not currently teach it at the level I prefer, 8th or 9th grade, but I’m recommending it for a 9th- and 10th-grade class next year.