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Passaic middle school students visit Washington, D.C.

As a language arts teacher at the Lincoln Middle School in Passaic, Sharon Surloff realized that her eighth-grade students, mostly black or Latino, had grown up knowing little, if anything, about the Holocaust.

Projects to remedy this were already under way. In her class, the teenagers had already studied Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and had been deeply moved, she said. She was also engaging them in discussions, bringing in survivors, taking field trips, and doing Holocaust-related projects.

Something was missing, however.

“As a teacher, I know that providing students with an educational opportunity that will touch them emotionally is the most promising way to turn a school lesson into a life-changing experience,” noted Surloff, who grew up in Fair Lawn.

The missing ingredient, she decided, was a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. To do that, however, she needed the funds.

“I wrote a grant letter and did research in the public library to find foundations,” she said. “My mother [Fair Lawn resident Evelyn Surloff] helped me with the leg work, and we found some donors.”

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Sharon Surloff

While some of those donors have chosen to remain anonymous, one – whose husband was killed on 9/11 and who is looking for worthy projects to fund in his name – actually sought out Surloff and offered to help. The teacher is also receiving financial assistance from the Warren and Mitzi Eisenberg Family Foundation.

“It is unfortunate… that the children in our poorest communities have little exposure to the history of intolerance of the Jews in Europe, and even less of the relevance of that experience to their own situation,” Surloff wrote to potential donors. “It is my hope that by providing this experience, we will fill that gap in their knowledge and help to reduce the intolerance we see today in our local minority communities and our society at large.”

For several years, Surloff took her students to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Thanks to a grant from the museum, students did not have to pay for their transportation, admission, tour guides, or the interns who come to the school to meet with them both before and after their field trip.

She said, however, that her students were “primed and eager for the logical extension of their Holocaust learning.”

This year, Surloff will be making the Washington trip for the fifth time. For her students, she said, the visit is an “eye-opening” experience.

For one thing, many have never been outside Passaic.

“I have never gone that far from home before,” wrote one student. “My family is from Mexico and we are poor, we struggle to buy the things we need, so I feel extremely lucky to have been able to go.”

That same student was deeply moved by the Holocaust Museum.

“How could the Nazis hate so much that they would kill, and in some cases, torture children?” he asked. “Learning about the Holocaust was interesting, but seeing the documentation in the museum made it really come to life in a way that reading a book can’t really do.”

“At the end of the museum exhibits, there was an opportunity for us to take an oath against genocide,” he added. “I signed my name to the oath and I am going to start researching to see what I can do to stop modern-day genocide. I may be only one person, but maybe I can make a difference.”

“I just couldn’t hold back my tears as I became witness to the horrors that the Nazis committed against the Jews,” wrote another student, who said it was an “honor” to listen to a survivor at the museum telling her story. “I took a moment to thank her for letting me hear her story and [told her] how blessed I felt.”

Another student wrote of his joy at seeing the nation’s capital.

“I am the first generation in my family to be born in the United States, so it meant a lot to me to go and see the White House. To me, the White House represents everything about America because it is a symbol of the president and the freedom that this country has to offer. I ran right up to it and held onto the gates.”

“One of the most important things I learned from [my teacher] is to stand up for what I believe in, especially when I see something that I think is wrong,” noted the same student. “I never want to be the person who does nothing. I am better than that.”

Surloff said it was her students’ interest and curiosity that inspired her to pursue this project.

“They had a thirst to know more,” she said. “It came from them, not from me. The best teachers let their students guide the instruction. It turned into something bigger than I thought it would be.”

She has seen some “beautiful things” come out of the Washington trips, she said.

“The first year we were there we told the students they had to be dressed appropriately and act appropriately,” she recalled. “The students were looking at something and a student from another school pushed past us. One of my students turned to me and said, ‘How could somebody come to this museum and push someone around like that?'”

A second incident occurred after her students were treated badly during a recreational activity.

“They were so dejected by this,” she said, noting that students from another school had addressed them using racial slurs.

“Someone should take them to the Holocaust Museum,” said one of her students. “They need to learn something about racism and bias.”