By Douglas Greene, JFGC Government and Public Affairs Associate, JCRC
As the Government and Public Affairs Associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater (JFGC), making up part of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), I am often made aware of community events supporting Jewish identity, culture, and education. Through Federation’s Outshine Hate initiative, we strive to partner with individuals, organizations, and educational institutions to educate, strengthen, and unite the local community. Because of this important work, I was invited by Principal Brooklyn Hough at Rea Farms STEAM Academy to speak to the school about Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Walking back into a school after leaving the classroom from a sixteen-year career as a high school English and Holocaust Studies teacher was a strange, yet familiar, feeling. The invitation to speak on their morning news program came as the result of parents reaching out to Federation about what the school was doing to honor the six million Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust. After reaching out to Principal Hough to let her know of our interest in being involved, I was delighted to receive an invitation to speak to the entire school about Holocaust Remembrance Day. In my career as a teacher, I primarily taught about the Holocaust to 11th and 12th grade students. This invitation presented a unique challenge: how does one properly and appropriately communicate the gravity and importance of the Holocaust to an audience of younger students, some as young as kindergarten?
I decided the answer was to keep it simple. I crafted my presentation on the importance of right and wrong, upstander behavior versus bystander behavior, and how memory shapes us and travels with us throughout our lives. Students at this age are able to understand the main characters in their lives: mothers, fathers, siblings, teachers, friends, etc., and students are able to know when the people they love hurt. I explained to students what the words “Never forget and never again” mean and why it is important to remember the memories of those who survived and those who perished in the Holocaust. I told the students that when we honor the survivors, many of whom were saved by acts of righteous individuals who risked their lives to save Jews and other victims from Nazi persecution, then we are remembering to stand up to hatred and persecution when it happens, rather than being a willing bystander.
I wanted students to know that even though they may at times feel they are too young or too little to make a difference, they aren’t, because, in fact, it was the acts of ordinary people like students, teachers, parents, and friends, that helped to save countless survivors of the Holocaust. Ordinary people can be upstanders to evil, and can truly make a difference and create a spark of change in the world. To quote the author Eve Bunting; “Standing up for what you know is right is not always easy. Especially if the one you face is bigger and stronger than you. It is easier to look the other way, but if you do, terrible things can happen.” This simple message helps students understand the principles of kindness and standing up for what is right. I challenged the students to share the stories they have learned, to enact small acts of kindness, and to remember that extraordinary things can come from ordinary people.
After speaking, a couple of students told me anecdotal stories of how they stood up to bullies, how they would comfort their friends when they were sad, and how happy they were to be in a school that offered so much to everyone.
Throughout the day, teachers posted purple flames on cutout white candles in their classroom windows and students were then invited to sign the candles as a pledge that they would stand up against hate. These seemingly small acts delivered by the extraordinary students and staff at Rea Farms STEAM Academy have helped to ignite a spark so that we can outshine hate. I am so thankful for the warm welcome and the hope that is rekindled in such a needed time by the students and staff at Rea Farms STEAM Academy.