Cleveland Heights High School’s annual trip to African-American Museum of History and Culture and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is always an important event for
Lessons of the Holocaust and Minority Students Achievement Network students.
Most unfortunately, the tragic events that occurred recently in Jeffersontown, Ky., where two African-Americans were murdered in a grocery store after an armed gunmen attempted to get into a predominantly black church, and in Pittsburgh where 11 Jewish people were murdered while in Shabbat services at Tree of Life Congregation, imposed even more significance for this year’s journey to the museums.
In a post-Jeffersontown and Pittsburgh attacks and pre-trip gathering with Mark Sack, Lessons of the Holocaust teacher, and Minority Students Achievement Network advisers O’Daisha Blue, Shawn Washington and Nathan Williams, students reviewed the known facts of the two hate crimes and confirmed the targeted characteristics of the victims (being identified by the perpetrators as being African-American and Jewish respectively). The students then discussed the historical contexts of attacks on African-Americans and Jewish people in this country and in other parts of the world. Additionally addressed was the growing number of hate groups in America, as well as the rising trend of hate-based violence in the country.
With this information as requisite background, the conversation transitioned to the more important topic –
an emphasis on reinforcing the goals of the trip to DC: education; the nurturing of tolerance, empathy and acceptance of the “other”; and personal empowerment.
While acknowledging that growing hate is out there, it became clear the teenagers’ generation has both the power and responsibility to speak and act in ways that promote a different society – a society that feels less fearful, less vulnerable and is kinder, gentler and more appreciative of the advantages of diversity.
Following visits to the African-American museum and the Holocaust museum, the group did a powerful processing session with their teachers and two museum educators. Among other important questions, issues of the motives for hate were examined, as well as levels of responsibility all citizens have in situations where dehumanization of and vicious targeting of others occur.
In this session, questions of particular relevance to present Jewish community life were raised. One of the students pointed out as an outsider, she sees the local Jewish community as being exceptionally organized, united and strong on its issues, and she wondered what, if any, role the Jewish Holocaust experience plays in this?
Sack clarified he is not an official spokesperson for the Jewish people, but shared his view that while there are several key pillars to the Jewish faith that connect Jews on different levels, the concept of never again, is a common thread that links all Jews, no matter what their level of religious observance. This never again stance also contributes to the motivation that Jews have to not only strengthen its community, but also to work to prevent victimization of other groups, and in general, to work to make the world a better place for all.
Another question came from a teacher: “In light of the Holocaust, how do Jewish people feel about what happened in Pittsburgh, where 11 of your people were slaughtered by a hater yelling, ‘All Jews must die’?” It is known that anti-Semitism has and does exist in America and the Pittsburgh murders are a tragic part of America’s landscape of rising hate. He further explained the incident in Pittsburgh, while perhaps increasing a sense of vulnerability that many people in America feel today, the tragedy serves not to cause paralyzing fear, but rather to motivate the Jewish community to do what is necessary to both secure its institutions and people in them, and to increase ongoing efforts to stop the general rise of hate and hate crimes and make America a better, more caring and just place for all.
The closing lesson for the students was the following: we all have the power to make choices that in some way acknowledge all humans are created in the image of G-d. This recognition demands an increased generosity of spirit and increased acceptance of others.
Each and every day we are provided with opportunities to be one of the following: a perpetrator; a victim: a bystander; or an upstander; We must choose our words carefully because they matter. We must choose our conduct carefully because it matters. We must choose to be upstanders and to speak out and take action against hate and injustice because these are the choices that truly speak to tikkun olam – repairing the world.
Mark Sack and Nathan Williams are social studies teachers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Sschool District.