Friday, April 29, 2011

What is the Future of Holocaust Education?

This Sunday, the 27th of Nissan, is the official established date of Yom HaShoah VeHagevurah, Holocaust Memorial Day (the actual observance is being pushed off one day by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate so as to avoid people violating Shabbat to take part in events on Saturday night). As such, this is a good time to raise for discussion an issue which weighs on my mind frequently.

On the one hand, Holocaust education is at a high point - entire libraries could be filled with the scholarly works and personal accounts that have been written about the Shoah, many States (including New Jersey) and European countries mandate Holocaust education, and Holocaust denial, while still very much alive, seems to be clearly defined as intellectually dishonest (Deborah Lipstadt's courtroom victory over David Irving being just one high-profile example). I have seen a Holocaust memorial in the US Air Force Base Museum in Dayton, Ohio and a memorial to Anne Frank at the Children's Museum in Indianapolis. Museums dedicated to the Holocaust are plentiful and approach the topic from a vast range of angles.

On the other hand, it appears to me that we are approaching a new era in educating about the Holocaust. The Holocaust ended 66 years ago, and thus the survivors who are still alive are in their 70's, while those survivors who have vivid memories to share are in their 80's. As such, the list of those available to provide first-hand accounts of their experiences is shrinking. Even those who are children of survivors and who wear that badge with a certain sense of pride - they are living examples and memorials to the fierce determination of their parents to survive in the face of the worst that mankind had to offer - are in their 50's and 60's. In other words, the landscape of those who are being asked to preserve the memory of what took place is increasingly populated by those who are two generations removed from the actual events.

Why is this important? I am not concerned about us forgetting the Holocaust - it has clearly become fixed as a major moment in Jewish history. Think about it - when listing major tragedies that have befallen us, the list is usually pretty short - Destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash, Spanish Expulsion, Holocaust. While there are of course many more that can be added, this is clearly the shortlist. My concern can perhaps be summed up as "when does the Holocaust transform from a current event into part of history"?

What do I mean as a part of history? In short, it means an event that we can learn about while remaining emotionally detached. Take the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash as an example. We mention it in our davening on a daily basis, we end many a speech and dvar Torah with a prayer for its rebuilding, we spend three weeks every summer vicariously mourning for it, and we spend Tisha B'Av engaged in talking about the destruction in all of its gory detail - and how many people can say that they are truly touched and really feel the pain of the loss? Of course we can't - it happened two thousand years ago, and while we can perhaps understand intellectually what occurred and what the loss of the Beit HaMikdash means to us as a nation, it would take a herculean effort of emotions to truly cry over its destruction.

Pesach provides us with another example. All of us sat at our seder tables two weeks ago and probably mentioned that the Jews were in Egypt for 210 years. Did anyone bother to consider how long that was? Two hundred and ten years ago, John Adams was wrapping up his term as president of the US, France was in the throes of post-revolutionary chaos, the Vilna Gaon had just died and Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch was not yet born. In other words - it was a LONG time ago. And yet, since our sojourn in Egypt is so far in the past, we are able to mention two centuries of enslavement and suffering as if it took place in the blink of an eye. Time does indeed heal all wounds.

And so to my question. At some point in the next fifty years, the Holocaust will begin to enter the annals of history. We can argue that this tragedy is different because of its size or its scope or the vast amount of material and evidence that is left behind from it, but the fact is that no human event has ever defeated time. And thus, my question for educators is what lessons do we feel should be the enduring ones from the Shoah? When everyone is three and four and five generations removed from the actual events, when no one exists who has even met a survivor, what do we want people to know when they learn about the Shoah? Discuss.

[Reminder - comments are welcome, but please do not post anonymously.]

Monday, April 11, 2011

Half Shabbos and the Dread of Pesach

About 7 months ago, Professor Alan Brill wrote a blog post that introduced many people to the term "half Shabbos" - which roughly refers to people, generally teenagers, who appear to be keeping Shabbat, yet have granted themselves an allowance to text on that day. Many reasons have been offered for how this phenomenon came about - is it the new form of teenage rebellion, are kids just too addicted to texting - but I would like to focus on what I consider to be a deeper cause of this occurrence, and in particular in light of the upcoming holiday of Pesach.

From my perspective, the issue with half-Shabbos is how it can be prevented. In a lecture that spoke to this issue, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of Riverdale spoke about the need to re-capture Shabbat for our children (and students). In a nutshell, if Shabbat is all about the don'ts and can'ts and shouldn'ts then we are conveying to our children that Shabbat is a day of restrictions, and of course that natural teenage need to somehow rebel will see Shabbat as an easy target. Religion is one of the prime areas in which kids express their individuality/rebelliousness, as there is not much that their parents can do to stop them short of punishment - and every parent and teacher knows that one has to be careful with a kid who is threatening to go "off the derech." Kids tend to know that parents are afraid that one infraction is just the first step to full-scale abandonment of religion, and thus for those who are so inclined, religion is quite a weapon in their struggles with parental or other authority.

However, if we can make Shabbat into a positive day, we may be able to get ahead of this problem. If we approach Shabbat, both at home in and the classroom, as a wonderful opportunity for rest, for coming together as a family (something that may be a rarity for many families during the week), for hanging out with friends, and so on, then we may be able to decrease the need to violate Shabbat as an act of rebellion - why would someone want to militate against something that is so positive?

[Obviously, if half-Shabbos is more a function of addiction to texting, then the journey may be a different one. I suppose that is for a different post.]

This comes to my mind as one and the same with how we approach Pesach. Full disclosure - I love Pesach. I love the seder, I love being with family and perpetuating long-standing traditions, I love the fact that it is a nice vacation during a beautiful time of year. Fuller disclosure - some years I make Pesach and some years I do not. When I do make Pesach, I am involved in every aspect of it, from cooking to cleaning, including lifting all sorts of pieces of furniture in search of Lord-only-knows-what.

That being said, few things grate on my ears more than hearing people complain in front of kids about the stress and labor involved of making Pesach. No question - there is much stress and much labor. We may very likely be cleaning more than we have to (consult your Local Orthodox Rabbi on that one), and keeping up with which products are and are not acceptable can be quite a challenge. Cooking for a cast of thousands with limited ingredients in the two days after the kitchen is kashered is a task that far exceeds making Yom Tov any other time during the year.

But what do our kids hear? Do they hear about the wonder of the holiday? Do they develop a sense of excitement and anticipation coming into it? When they are younger, they surely do, as they come to the seder armed with colorful projects and joyful songs and whatever else they learn in early childhood. But as our children and students grow up and become more sensitive to the subtle messages that we convey, are we aware of the messages that we are sending them? As with Shabbat, are we communicating that we are looking forward to all that this day has to offer, and we hope that they will as well, or are we presenting the holidays as days on which to rest from the burden of preparing for the holidays?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Standing in the Way of Technology

My school uses Google Apps for Education, a wonderful service that not only provides us with a Gmail-based email system, but also affords us many other Google tools such as documents and calendar which we find quite useful in a school setting. As many of you know, one feature of Gmail is gchat, whereby you can have a live chat (or even a video chat) on your Gmail screen while you conduct other business.

For one reason or another, our school has disabled chat for students (one feature of the education module of Google is that you can pick which applications are available). After the initial complaining about this, my 4th grade daughter came home one day and announced that she needed the computer at a certain time, because she and her friends were having a chat. But isn't chat disabled, we asked (although I knew what the answer would be)? She replied that they had figured out that it is possible to create a Google document and have a chat within the document - a wonderful tool that was created to allow people to collaborate on a document and talk about it as they create it. For my daughter and her friends, this was simply an easily-discovered and impossible to shut down loophole around attempts to squash their abilities to communicate in the way that they wanted to.

Now to the picture shown above. Most of you recognize it as the famous picture from the Tianemen Square demonstrations in China in 1989, when one brave individual momentarily stood up to an entire column of Chinese tanks as a show of protest against the Communist government. What is often unsaid about this picture is that this student's victory was short-lived, as the government eventually quelled the demonstrations and the regime lives on over two decades later.

To my mind, the tanks are our children and students using technology, and the lone student is anyone who tried to get in their way. We may succeed in making a rule here or disabling an application there, but they are more resourceful and far quicker than we perhaps give them credit for, and there is no way that they will lose this battle.

This has tremendous implications for schools and teachers. When we talk about technology in schools, often we talk about certain applications used in computer classes, or about policies restricting cell phones or laptops in class. If we are truly in the business of educating students, then doesn't it make more sense to teach them the responsible way to use these tools? Yes, if we are boring, they will look for distractions, and electronic devices are great distractions. But wouldn't it be so much better for everyone if our classes were not only interesting, but found a way to co-opt these tools (cellphones included!) so that our students wanted to be engaged? Do we ban Facebook in school? If so- why? At a certain age our students all have FB accounts, and by keeping it completely out of the school environment we are losing an opportunity to teach them how to use it responsibly. Do you think that lecturing them about the dangers of FB really resonates with everyone? With anyone?

There is so much more to say on this topic, and much is being written in many corners - in the world of general education, as well as in all parts of the religious spectrum - about how to properly incorporate the tidal wave of new technology which is developing faster than we can find ways to deal with it. I will blog further about some of the details in the future. For now, decide if you want to be in the tank, or if you want to be that student who looked like a hero for a moment, but ultimately lost the war.