I recently participated in a powerful online encounter that brought home some of the lessons of the Holocaust to a class of American Bar and Bat Mitzva students.

The students are studying a unit on Holocaust Remembrance, Remembering and Rebuilding After the Holocaust, with JETS Israel, a company that creates and facilitates online education on subjects that relate to Judaism and Israel.

As part of the unit we addressed the subject of Holocaust heroes in a lesson titled Defiance. I’ve been working as an online educator for over a year now but have never seen the power of elearning demonstrated as clearly as it was during this one-hour lesson.

We started out the lesson by asking the kids to chat in their answers to the question “For whom are you responsible?”

The students’ answers all related to responsibility to friends, family and other acquaintances.

J.C. “Sometimes a friend needs help — food if they are sick, take care of their kids when needed, invite them over

D.B. “Family, friends — they look out for you.”

S.R. “Having an obligation and doing that obligation for our family and friends

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We then screened an old Seinfeld clip in which the Seinfeld cast was arrested under the Good Samaritan Law after they ignored a person in distress. Most of the students in the class had been unaware that such a law even existed and expressed surprise and dismay that the law was needed. This held true even after the instructor pointed out that, according to their own views on “for whom are you responsible,” the Seinfeld characters had acted responsibly since they didn’t know the person who was in distress.

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Next, we posed more challenging questions to the students. What is the moral thing to do when you see someone in distress? What does Judaism say about helping someone who needs assistance? In what instances do you offer your help? Are there times at which you should not extend a hand?

The discussion moved into the crux of the lesson — how does an individual weigh the desire to help against the risk that it might mean to his own future and, perhaps, to his own life and the lives of family members? How do you educate society towards responsible behavior to one’s fellow man? The class separated into two groups within the online classroom — as though they had moved into two distinct rooms — to discuss the issues and consider the alternatives.

J.S. “It is a judgment call; you have to balance the risk you are taking with the need someone has for help.”

S.R. “God expects us to be the best person we can be and do what is right in his eyes.”

C.B. “You can only guide people in the right direction. You can’t always make someone do something

J.C. “You can teach that by setting good examples

J.F. “You draw the line when the one who needs help expects the help and doesn’t need it anymore

By this time it was clear that the students were looking at the question of “to whom am I responsible” differently. They joined together to read textual quotes and watch videos  about simple non-Jews — Chiune Sugarara, a Japanese diplomat and Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker — who had acted honorably and courageously during the Nazi occupations of their countries, even though they were risking their own lives. We contrasted these people with an account of a German Jewish family that was faced with an anti-semitic outburst from a formally trusted friend during the Nazi era.

J.F. “I feel this speaks to me the most because it demonstrates how most people don’t do things for themselves

D.B. “If more people do good and if we can be good after some evil and stay good the world will be a lot better

B.G. ”Everyone is trying to do good, but not always in the right way

The groups moved to online bulletin boards where they continued their research into heroes of the Holocaust. Some of these heroes have received wide recognition (Oskar Schindler) while others are barely known (Sir Nicholas Winton). Students were given the opportunity to research a Holocaust hero and present their findings to the classroom. To conclude the lesson each student created a slide about a Holocaust hero that s/he wished to honor. These slides were collated on a Google presentation as a class project to honor the heroes.

At the end of the lesson the question was asked again — “to whom is each of us responsible?”

S.R. “I have learned that anyone can help anyone.”

M.H. I am responsible for anyone who I see.”

J.S. “Anyone who needs my abilities more than I do.”

eLearning presents opportunities that are not possible in traditional learning frameworks. It involves more preparation and the need to keep things moving much more quickly than in a traditional classroom. In my experience however, online learning allows for a more intensive form of learning than students are able to experience in frontal teaching situations.

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