Innovation in Holocaust Education

Students preparing to participate in the Hate Ends Now tour. (courtesy)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jewish organizations loved to talk about their innovation and strategy. Countless hours were spent dedicated to the topic amongst lay leadership, staff, and constituents. Like all product creation, you needed the brainpower in the room to plan, strategize, and execute, before reviewing and pivoting.

Then March 2020 happened. Decades’ old models of engagement were thrown out the window to adapt to a new world where all ideas, socialization, and content were absorbed through a screen.

Over the past three years, Southern NCSY has focused on redefining Holocaust education. As I’ve shared in my last post, the sharing of the experience was largely focused on immersive experiences and museums. In order to properly transmit our history to future generations, we realized that we needed to pivot from that model.

Our lay leadership challenged us to tackle this problem. How were we going to make the Holocaust resonate with future Jewish generations, and as important, their peers?

For the 2019-2020, we launched the “Tolerance and Diversity Ambassador Initiative”. Through this project, students had the in school opportunity to screen the documentary “Who Will Write Our History” that told about the heroic story of the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto Archives. We then partnered with local school districts to make sure that students learned about the Holocaust through testimonies of survivors and sponsoring books and trips to the US Holocaust Museum.

The following year, we had already started organizing Virtual Tours of Auschwitz with our Holocaust educator based in Poland, even before the pandemic shut down in-person programming. Through this experience, we gave teens a glimpse of what hate can produce, with a real person guiding us through answering questions in real time. No, it was not the same as an immersive experience – but in the 21st century, products need to be built to scale. Over 100 tours later, we’re proud to say that we have engaged thousands of people in intergenerational tours at a fraction of the cost and time commitment that typical heritage tours yield. Most importantly, the individuals who would not feel comfortable going on such a mission were also exposed to the realities; this may be the most important part of the experience.

And starting this past September, we started the ‘Hate Ends Now’ tour through an exclusive partnership with ShadowLight.  Participants step into this replica of a Holocaust era cattle car for a fully immersive and interactive 360 degree multi media experience.  This traveling exhibition is the next level of our immersive Holocaust experiences for the masses. The video testimonials and presentations surround you and move at a pace that keeps today’s teens fully engaged.

(courtesy)
(courtesy)

Since its founding, NCSY has been in perpetual innovation mode. Looking at over 5,000 years of Jewish history, the methods of prior centuries where Jews lived largely traditional lives in somewhat self-contained communities were no longer relevant to the 20th century Jewish young adult. Our programming started in synagogues, transitioned to JCC’s, then moved to after-school club programming, followed by programs at local coffee shops, and now moving to high level niche programming. In parallel, we’ve continued to offer phenomenal summer opportunities that are attracting a growing population, exposing many teens to Jewish life and Israel who otherwise would not have had the opportunity, including three different programs that visit the Holocaust death camps.

We have more projects like ‘Who Will Write Our History’, Virtual Tours of Auschwitz, and Hate Ends Now in the works for this and subsequent years. We know that the old model no longer works for a vast proportion of our community. 

Innovation is in the air, and we plan to keep leading that innovation.

About the Author
Visionary in permanent beta: learning, innovating, collaborating, evolving. Todd is the Executive Director of Southern NCSY.
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