|Blaize Wamukwaya sings for SSDS students.|
When Jewish schools teach about genocide, they stress the mass killing of Jews during World War II.
That is entirely as it should be.
Still, says Beryl Bresgi, librarian and coordinator of Shoah studies at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, these studies should go even deeper.
“We teach the Shoah as a unique event that happened to the Jewish people, but it has universal implications,” she said. “It should be ‘never again’ for everybody.”
“The Shoah should be studied within the context of the world and the choices that people make,” added Ms. Bresgi, who recently visited Rwanda together with Ruth Gafni, Schechter’s head of school.
The trip came about through a “confluence of things,” Ms. Bresgi said, explaining that the direct cause was a donor’s inability to participate in a mission to the African nation and his suggestion that she and Ms. Gafni take his place.
“He lost both of his survivor parents and wanted to donate a Shoah center at Schechter,” Ms. Bresgi said. “We were working on that.” As they were speaking sometime last spring, “he said, ‘You won’t believe it; I have Stephen Smith in my office.'”
Dr. Smith is the executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. As it happened, the New Milford school already had been in touch with the foundation’s IWitness program, which uses the collected, indexed, and catalogued testimony of hundreds of Holocaust survivors. It also provides resources for educators to build customized activities based on that testimony.
“Dr. Smith knew we were looking into the IWitness program,” Ms. Bresgi said. “We made a nice connection.”
In February, the donor – a supporter of both Schechter and the Shoah Foundation – was invited to go to Rwanda with the foundation to see the work being done by the organization with testimony from both perpetrators and survivors.
“It was both complicated and interesting,” Ms. Bresgi said. “He couldn’t go, so he invited Ruth and me to go on the mission.”
She said she had already begun thinking that as the culmination of the school’s Shoah program in eighth grade, she would like students to make digital recordings of the stories of survivors from their own community. The trip to Rwanda, she thought, might give her some new insights into that project.
Since the school had decided to embrace the Shoah curriculum “Facing History and Ourselves” – which confronts the issue of the Holocaust and human behavior – “this seemed like a good opportunity to learn and investigate.”
Ms. Gafni and Ms. Bresgi, the only school educators on the trip, joined foundation supporters as well as educators from the foundation itself.
“It lasted eight days,” Ms. Bresgi said. “We were on a bus with two Rwandan survivors, working as Shoah Foundation cataloguers. There are a lot of schools there.” The language of instruction is English, she added.
“Five or six secondary schools are using the testimony of Holocaust survivors,” she said. “The students were fascinated that genocide could happen to Europeans.”
Ms. Bresgi said that the messages of the trip still are emerging – she returned shortly before Pesach and then she and Ms. Gafni went to Poland with the school’s eighth graders, who had a chance to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and speak with some survivors there. Then Ms. Gafni went on to Israel with the students, and Ms. Bresgi returned home.
Whatever the final outcome of the Rwanda visit, it already has borne tangible fruit. First, the school made a connection with the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, founded by the late Anne Heyman.
ASYV, a residential community in rural Rwanda, cares for young people who were orphaned during and after the genocide there in 1994. It is modeled on a similar program created for Jewish children in Israel after the Holocaust.
“These children were born into destruction,” Ms. Bresgi said. “There was no infrastructure, no roads, no running water. Twenty years later, look at what’s been done. Through great investment from the West, they have a strong government, and women have been empowered. Their slogan is ‘remember, unite, and renew.'”
“There’s a strong sense of ‘don’t forget, don’t allow denial,'” she said. But so is “the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation.
“It’s a waste of time to indulge in revenge. It helps both the perpetrators and victims, who are living together. There is no diaspora.”
“Reconciliation is powerful.”
During the trip, Ms. Bresgi said, she asked a man who had suffered great loss about the idea of revenge.
“I’m more interested in getting my master’s degree than in killing my neighbors,” he said.
In addition to forging a connection with the youth village, Ms. Gafni and Ms. Bresgi learned that eight residents of the village were planning a visit to the United States. Happily, the school was able to join the group of host organizations. The young Rwandans visited the New Milford school on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Leah Silberstein, the school’s director of communications, said the visit included learning, impromptu singing, and a joint game of soccer. But most of the visit “revolved around exchanging stories about each other’s lives and enjoying each other’s music.”
After Blaise Rwamukwaya, 20, mentioned that the eight visitors would be happy to sing for their hosts, “nearly 50 SSDS students and faculty leapt from their chairs in the school’s library and made their way to Makom Shira, the school’s music room, for an impromptu concert,” Ms. Silberstein said. “Agahozo-Shalom students surprised everyone with their version of such American pop songs as John Legend’s ‘All of Me’ and Bruno Mars’ ‘Count on Me.'” They also sang an a capella South African hymn.
“SSDS students responded with a spontaneous rendition of ‘Let It Go,’ from the animated film ‘Frozen,’ followed by ‘Hatikvah,'” Ms. Silberstein said.
“The SSDS students were spellbound as Innocent Nkundiye, the 22-year-old self-proclaimed poet of the group, performed a spontaneous poetry slam he called ‘We are the New Blood of Rwanda,’ referencing his generation’s efforts to help heal and rebuild Rwanda after the genocide.”
In addition, Ms. Silberstein said, when Jacky Tuyisenge, 18, told the SSDS middle school students that she has fully embraced the value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, a concept she learned at Agahozo-Shalom, an SSDS seventh-grader replied, “That is what we learn here every day, too.”
Ms. Bresgi is proud of the school’s approach to teaching about the Shoah. While students learn about the events that have befallen the Jewish people, the new curriculum helps show that “this happens to other people” – a lesson the Rwandans’ visit brought home forcefully.
“Children should have a sense of their responsibility to speak out even in middle school, to see what needs to be done locally and help out,” she said.
“They should have the awareness of injustice. We don’t expect them to join the U.N. and solve the world’s problems, but we want to raise awareness of their responsibility and empowerment, starting right here. And that’s pretty big.”