Can’t religious school be just about coloring camels from Torah portions? Do we have to teach the hard stuff? Many religious school education directors have fielded questions along these lines from concerned parents.
When I first brought the new Holocaust curriculum to my synagogue’s religious school, one parent asked, “Why? Why does this need to be part of our religious school program?”
In classic Jewish fashion, the best answer is another question: How do we want our children to learn about the Holocaust?
The answer that mother wanted to be able to give was “I don’t.” I think she would have been happy to let her kids just color camels. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could keep all knowledge of the Holocaust from our kids until they were old enough to handle it? (Is anyone ever?)
But avoiding the Holocaust is not an option. No matter what we do, our kids will learn about the Holocaust. Holocaust references permeate our culture. In truth, our kids learn about it far earlier than we think they do.
A book about the Hindenburg?
I sat at the kitchen table, discussing Holocaust education with my oldest friend and her twelve-year-old daughter. Their religious school started teaching the Holocaust in 6th grade. Halfway through the conversation, my friend’s ten-year-old entered the room and caught a partial sentence. “What’s a ghetto?” she asked.
“What do you know about the Holocaust?” I asked her.
Her mother shook her head. “She knows nothing,” my friend said.
“Well,” the ten-year-old responded, “I know that six million Jews were killed in gas chambers.”
Her mother was stunned. “How do you know that?”
“From a book I read about the Hindenburg.”
A book about a completely unrelated event, aimed at 4th graders, casually mentioned six million dead Jews and the gas chambers that killed them.
Our kids are learning about the Holocaust. They are learning about it younger than we think they are. And they are learning about it from places over which we have no control.
Wouldn’t we rather be in control of how our children first learned about the Holocaust?
Controlling the message
We want to control not only when our children first learn about the Holocaust, but also what our children first learn about the Holocaust.
A lot of Holocaust education in the public space treats Jews as passive victims, as “sheep to be slaughtered.” Partisans and other Jewish resistance fighters may be mentioned in passing, but for the most part, the Jews are not actors in this story. Terrible things are done to Jews; Jews merely suffer.
As we know, there is much more to the story of the Holocaust. Jews were actors, resisting their oppressors both physically and spiritually. How Jews survived and held on to their culture in the face of institutionalized genocide is an essential part of this story. More fundamentally, Jewish resilience is a critical element of the Holocaust story we want to teach to our children.
For Jewish kids, understanding how we as a people dealt with the unimaginable cruelty is critical to integrating this story into their self-image as Jews. Many faced that cruelty with strength and courage; others with fear and despair. The unifying theme is that we faced this horror with humanity.
For non-Jewish kids, understanding the humanity of the victims is critical to learning to empathize with people who are different than they are.
By teaching our children about the Holocaust in our religious schools, we can control the narrative they first learn. Be they Jewish or not, we can give them a foundation of Jewish humanity on which to lay the stories of Jewish suffering.
The only Jewish kid in school
About a year after the initial roll-out of our new Holocaust program, one of our student aides, a high school freshman, noticed that the family who had asked “why” hadn’t been around in a while. They left, we told her, partly because of this program.
“That was a mistake,” our student aide replied. “We need to know this.”
“Where we live,” she continued, “we are often the only Jewish kid in our class, sometimes in the whole school. When I got to the Holocaust in school, my peers expected me to know something. They looked to me for a deeper understanding. I wish I had known more about the Holocaust before I learned about it in school. I wish I had learned about it in a Jewish context first.”
Our children are asking us for more. They hear bits and pieces about the Holocaust in school or in popular culture, and they want to know more. They know the Holocaust is, fundamentally, a Jewish story. They want the Jewish context and the Jewish perspective.
Answering the parent who asks “Why?”
So how do we answer the parent who asks why? We answer with the recognition that no one wants their child to dwell in horror. But our children are going to learn about that horror, so we want to be the ones to teach them. We know we can teach our children about trauma without allowing the story to traumatize them.
We will be there to hold their hands and, as they say at Yad Vashem, lead them “safely in and safely out” of the lessons. We will tell true stories, but not tell the whole story at every age. We will be sure that the first stories they hear are age-appropriate. To do that, we need to start before middle school. For my friend’s daughters, 6th grade was too late. We need to start teaching them age-appropriate Holocaust stories in kindergarten and 1st grade, before they start reading books that casually mention the mass murder of our people. 
And we will start with stories focused on Jewish action and resilience. We know, of course, that they will eventually have to confront the stories of Jewish despair and anguish. By starting with resilience, however, despair becomes merely one of a breadth of human responses, rather than the only response. By focusing on spiritual strength, the story of the Holocaust becomes a story from which our children can learn how to be the people we want them to be.
Coloring camels for Torah portions has pedagogical value. However, we need to help parents understand if that is all we are teaching our children, we are doing them a disservice. Teaching the Holocaust might be hard, but it is essential to the religious education we want for our children.