Why would a gentile public school teacher lecture Israeli high school students about the Holocaust?

New Milford High School history and special education teacher Colleen Tambuscio’s goal was to widen the Israeli students’ appreciation of the Holocaust as a genocide. “I knew the universal lessons would be new to them,” she said.

The Holocaust studies curriculum Tambuscio initiated at Midland Park High School 15 years ago, and at New Milford nine years ago, came to the attention of the director of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Partnership 2000 (P2K) program with Nahariya. Over the past decade, 13 Nahariya schools have been “twinned” with 22 North Jersey congregational and day schools for a variety of collaborative programming. But never before had a public school joined the project.

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From left are Colleen Tambuscio with Erin Novak and Meredith McCann, New Milford High School students who have traveled with her to Holocaust sites. They spoke at UJA-NNJ’s meeting Monday night of the P2K executive board. Courtesy UJA-NNJ

“We’d heard that other P2Ks have public school connections and it’s the only way to reach Jewish students who don’t attend Jewish schools,” said Mercedes Hadad, P2K educational coordinator in Nahariya. “We knew how complicated it could be because of the separation of church and state, but a topic that is common to both of us is Holocaust studies and it’s compulsory in New Jersey.”

Tambuscio gave three PowerPoint presentations at the Nahariya public high school on Nov. 1. She included clips of a documentary about her classes’ annual Holocaust Study Tour to Poland, emphasizing that the vast majority of her students are not Jewish and even include Palestinians. “They were amazed at the backgrounds of our students studying the Holocaust,” Tambuscio said.

The concept of traveling to authentic historical sites to study the Holocaust is familiar to Israeli students, she continued. However, when she began to discuss other genocides and the warning signs of genocide, the kids were on unfamiliar territory. Some had heard of the Armenian genocide, but not Rwanda, Cambodia, or Darfur. Most weren’t aware that hundreds of Sudanese refugees are harbored in Israel.

“I told them about Holocaust survivors in America speaking side by side with Rwandan survivors,” Tambuscio wrote in her blog, “and they couldn’t conceptualize that idea.”

To Tambuscio, who has a master’s degree in Jewish-Christian studies from Seton Hall University and is an educational consultant to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, the Shoah is “the greatest example of a human rights atrocity that so many people ignored. It’s important to teach our students to be on guard to world genocide, to teach them the warning signs and how to be an active citizen in a democracy.”

“It was a very exciting experience, and there were a lot of questions,” reported Hadad. “Colleen’s visit was just the opening of the project. We’ll make a book of student essays and we will exchange the essays with her students. We are also planning a video conference for the two groups to talk about what they’ve learned.” Communication should not be a problem, as the Israeli teens speak English well.

Hadad leads an annual delegation of educators to North Jersey. This month, she is bringing along a group of principals and the mayor’s assistant for educational affairs. “The aim of our visit is deepening and strengthening the educational connections between our schools,” she said. “We are each going to teach a lesson in some of our ‘twin’ schools.” In Tambuscio’s class, the guest lecture will be “Israel as a Democracy.”

In May, 12 Nahariya students are expected in North Jersey, and Tambuscio hopes to take them with members of her own class to a new exhibition on world genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, where she is a fellow.

“Our school administrators were very excited about this collaboration,” she said. “They are very proud of our Holocaust education course. In a school that has a very small Jewish population, it’s about teaching important lessons for humanity, and it broadens our students’ horizons.”

Tambuscio reflected that the Nahariya students are very much like her own: “bright, passionate, enlightened, and most of all willing to delve deeper into issues that matter. When we had conversations across cultural lines, I felt I was talking to my students, and religion wasn’t going to be a barrier to our conversation.”

She supports the idea of getting other North Jersey public school teachers involved in P2K, an idea she discussed at a Nov. 29 meeting of the P2K executive board.