We want to believe an attack on Jewish people worshipping in their synagogue is supposed to be a part of history, at least as far back as the Holocaust and on another continent. But, the Tree of Life shooting caused nightmarish memories to resurface and shook Pittsburgh’s residents, especially the city’s Holocaust survivors and their families. Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods and communities filled with diverse ethnic groups, religious beliefs, and immigrants from nearly every nation. Residents may argue over the best recipe for pierogis or which Penguin player is the most valuable, but working together for the sake of Pittsburgh binds its residents into one group. Pittsburgh came together before the Tree of Life tragedy, and Pittsburgh has not allowed the tragedy to change its fundamental identity.
Leading up to the first anniversary of the shooting, delicate questions were raised. How does a community mark this date? Nearly thirty different events were planned to commemorate the victims. Some of the events were private – for the victims and their families; for the specific congregations that worship at Tree of Life. Yet disagreements did arise. Wanting to honor the memories of the victims, some people insisted that politics be completely removed from any speeches or comments made during memorial services while others felt that this was impossible, under the circumstances. Agreement was reached on the overall goal: “Remember; Repair; Together” to prevent a similar tragedy in another time or place and to heal as a community.
One year after the Tree of Life shooting our work as Holocaust educators carries increased significance. With the fading memories of the Holocaust and the rise in global antisemitism, educating our students, and, hopefully, the broader community, is our most important tool for shaping a future of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. As a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, I am sent to a variety of educational sites. Each group of educators is a product of their own upbringing, their political views, the expectations of the community within which they teach, and the laws of their state. I cannot assume that in six hours of a program I can correct all misconceptions about this history. At the same time, I must reassure those educators that neither can they correct all the misinterpretations that their students believe. We are human, and changing another person’s thinking and understanding takes practice, empathy, and patience.
Hope for a more tolerant and accepting world grows when school administrators and teachers recognize issues within their buildings. Beginning with the 2015-2016 school year, the Act 70 Mandate for Holocaust and Genocide Education was implemented in Pennsylvania. Other states have enacted or are considering similar mandates. As Holocaust educators, this should fill our hearts with joy. At the same time, it should give us pause. Demanding that an individual only mention the words “Holocaust” and “genocide” is ineffective. Handing an educator a curriculum guide that includes a Holocaust lesson or unit does not mean that the educator is informed or prepared to tackle such a complex topic. The rise of antisemitic comments, information, and behaviors in this country and around the world make it clear that not all students, their families, or our fellow educators will accept the facts and welcome the discussions. Administrators and state education officials must provide the designated teacher with emotional support, professional development, and properly vetted resources. When parents, guardians, or community members question or criticize the curriculum, the administration must be prepared to defend vehemently and concisely the reasoning behind the lesson.
Educating people of all ages and situations in life is the best tool we have for fixing the misinformation, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation that have become facts in the minds of a significant number of people. We educators work diligently in our classrooms to create informed and compassionate individuals, and this is valuable and necessary work. But we also recognize that our students’ actions and thoughts are shaped and fueled by their home environment. Family members, religious leaders, and friends all wield power over our student’s vision of the world and their definition of “them.” Holocaust and genocide education must reach all members of society if anything is to change. This education includes recognizing and analyzing the propaganda and deliberate lies spread by selfish, fearful, or angry groups and individuals. This education must help to uncover the events and reasons that have encouraged hatred and distrust. Educators often carry the burden of providing a safe environment for students to discuss what they have heard at home or within their communities. At the same time, we educators sometimes think we know and understand but do not always recognize our own blurred vision of facts. If we are to help in preserving and protecting democratic values and institutions, then we must continue to educate ourselves and recognize exactly what we say and do in the classrooms, the faculty rooms, the meeting rooms, and in the world at large. We must continue to help each other to make a positive difference to create a more just world and to prevent future tragedies from occurring.
About the author: Lynne Rosenbaum Ravas retired from teaching and began presenting with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s Generations Program. In addition to serving as a facilitator for Echoes & Reflections, she volunteers with the Federal Executive Board’s Hate Crimes Working Group and other organizations in the area.