Training on Holocaust Studies for Teachers Takes Place in Los Angeles


Training on Holocaust Studies for Teachers Takes Place in Los Angeles

Yehudis Litvak

Over twenty Los Angeles mechanchim and mechanchos, as well as interested community members, attended a three day seminar on Holocaust Studies, presented by Torah Umesorah and hosted by the LA Torah Umesorah Teacher Center.

The program was packed with information. Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein, head of publications at Torah Umesorah and director of Zechor Yemos Olam, Torah Umesorah’s division of Holocaust Studies, introduced the program and led several sessions. He spoke about the importance of teaching the Holocaust. Before 1980, Jewish schools in America did not emphasize the Holocaust. Rabbi Klein, himself a child of Holocaust survivors, related that when he was growing up, the subject of the Holocaust was taboo. Neither his parents nor his teachers, who were also survivors, spoke about it. He didn’t find out until his own wedding that both of his parents had been married to other people before the war and had children who did not survive.

Rabbi Klein explained that the decades following the Holocaust were not the right time to talk about it. The survivors, greatly traumatized by their experiences, tried hard to put the past behind them and rebuild the Jewish community anew. Their tremendous success is apparent today. “90% of mosdos Hatorah are courtesy of the kochos and resources of survivors,” said Rabbi Klein.

Now, when Torah and Jewish life are flourishing, is the right time to study the Holocaust. In fact, Rabbi Dovid Schustal, shlita, one of the roshei yeshiva of the Lakewood Yeshiva, said at an assembly that teaching the Holocaust today is a chov kodesh – a sacred obligation.

Rabbi Klein emphasized that Holocaust studies are not simply history lessons, but “a portal that goes beyond history.” While it is important to teach students the basic facts, Holocaust education must go beyond the facts to address the powerful lessons we can take from the Holocaust, which are just as relevant today. Rabbi Klein delineated ten potential lessons, including the mesirus nefesh exhibited by the Jews during the Holocaust and the eternity of the Jewish people. He quoted the Gerrer Rebbe as saying that when there is a greater darkness, lights are brighter. So too, the light in the Jewish souls shone brightly during this dark chapter of history.

Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a Los Angeles-based Jewish Studies professor and Holocaust historian, spoke about the history of anti-Semitism and the evolution of the Holocaust. Rabbi Moshe Perecman of Detroit detailed the history of World War II. Rabbi Shmuel Shapiro of Chicago spoke about mesirus nefesh during the war, as well as the world’s complicity. Rabbi Moshe Lebovits of Toronto spoke about hatzolah and reconstruction and addressed pedagogical challenges when teaching about the Holocaust. The participants also watched videos about the Holocaust, produced by Torah Umesorah, and footage of Rabbi Klein’s and other speakers’ trips to the sites of mass murders and concentration camps in Europe. The teachers had an opportunity for professional networking during lunch and snack breaks. The seminar concluded with a debriefing session, led by Rabbi Klein.

The central theme of the seminar was that Holocaust studies need to bring more light into the world. Rather than leaving students with nightmare-triggering horror stories, Holocaust studies need to be uplifting and inspiring, with the overall goal of helping students become better people and better ovdei Hashem. “This is our legacy to live by,” said Rabbi Lebovits. “The Nazis wanted people not be human. As Yidden, we need to become more human, more baalei chessed, more tzelem Elokim… Let us reflect the Ribbono Shel Olam a little bit clearer.”

Rabbi Klein touched upon the big questions the students might potentially ask – “why did it happen and what did the Ribbono Shel Olam want from us?” He emphasized the importance of conveying to students that our ability to understand is finite and we can never fully understand the infinite G-d. If the Holocaust is taught properly, then the students should “emerge with the sense of being closer to the Ribbono Shel Olam,” said Rabbi Klein.

Students can also gain a greater sense of appreciation of themselves as Jews. One of the films, Strike on Heaven, demonstrated that the Nazis knew full well that “Yiddishkeit would live on as long as there is one Jewish heart still beating.” The G-dliness innate to the Jewish soul is independent of whether a Jew is able to daven in shul or perform any mitzvos. Our existence in itself is a threat to the Nazi ideology of secular humanism.