Shoah Education: Je-m College Reaches Out to Teens

Jerualem's Michlala succeeds in involving hundreds of high schoolers in a project to deepen understanding and empathy.

Rachel Sylvetsky,

Competitors in the Michlala
Competitors in the Michlala
 Israel news photo: PR photo

April 10th is going to be a special day for Israeli religious high school girls. It is the day of the final stage of the competition on knowledge of the Holocaust that they have spent months studying for.

How to keep the memory of the Holocaust from becoming just another subject to memorize for new generations of high school students poses a challenge to educators, as survivors age and the dates recede farther back into students' historic consciousness.

The Jerusalem Teacher's College, called "The Michlala" by Israelis, appointed respected Holocaust researcher and historian Esther Farbstein, author of the two-volume "HIdden in Thunder, Perspectives on Faith, Halakha and Leadership during the Holocaust"  (pub. by Mossad Harav Kook) head of its Shoah Institute. Rebbetzin Farbstein was for many years a recognized master teacher at Jerusalem's Horev Ulpana -  and the results are that in the Institute's programs, the hard-to-grasp numbers and destruction are skillfully interwoven with the richness of Jewish life before the war and the ways in which the Jews coped with the sudden horrific danger, deprivation and death. The heritage of the Shoah is broadened to be the expression of the Jewish people's faith, values and spiritual strength that gave their fight for survival, in the face of barbaric cruelty, a deeper meaning.

This interpretation goes a long way towards explaining why no less than 371 high school girls from 47 schools and 34 communities from the Galilee's Tiberias to the Negev's Arad entered the first round of the Michlala's 2013 Shoah Heritage competition. Hundreds more of their fellow students followed the proceedings from school and home computers, so no matter who wins - although she can certainly be proud of herself - all those participating gained interest and perspective on this seismic catastrophe in Jewish history.

The object of the competition is, naturally, to follow the development of the Nazi rise to power and the stages of the Holocaust, but its mission is to connect students with Jewish life before the Shoah, learn about life in the ghetto and camp during the years of the Holocaust from primary sources and available research, and become aware of the way Jewish values helped the victims cope – resulting in students' enhanced empathy and respect for survivors.

This year's theme, chosen by Yad Vashem, is the Warsaw Ghetto, as this is the 70th anniversary of the courageous uprising. A glance at the contest's website shows how, in ways that this electronic media generation appreciates, students are exposed to the picture of a religiously, culturally and politically vibrant Warsaw Jewish community that influenced the entire Jewish world before the war – all the while learning that at the time, I out of 3 residents of Warsaw was Jewish and that there were 600 places of Jewish worship and 800 Jewish doctors in the city, 9 Jewish newspapers and many libraries among other aspects of life with which the youngsters can identify.

Much of the competition took place over the Internet, since the subject matter was arranged in user-friendly fashion. The first stage of the competition was based on written files and a power point presentation that students could download, the second and third on sources.

The initiator and sponsor of the program, businessman Yossi Bilig, is an example of how a values-conscious man of business can affect the future. Working with the Institute, Israel's Education MInistry and an advisory committee that included Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar,he expressed his satisfaction at the level of participation, saying "Awareness and connection with our roots and our nation's history bring us to the conclusion that we must prevent rifts among the sectors of our population and unite to combat the existential threats facing us today - through our youth, our future."