You don’t have to be Jewish to teach about the Holocaust

You don’t have to be Jewish to teach about the Holocaust

Scottish-born educator is the new senior program associate at Jewish Foundation for the Righteous

Dr. Buchanan talks to students at a  breakout session at the JFR’s summer institute last month.
Dr. Buchanan talks to students at a breakout session at the JFR’s summer institute last month.

Fifty years ago, Andrew Buchanan received his first Bible.

The seven-year-old boy from Aberdeen, Scotland, was keenly interested in the Scriptures and captivated by the descriptions of the Promised Land. “Over the years I read more and more about Israel and about the Holocaust and the rebirth of the state,” he said.

He was so interested that when he took a leave of absence from his freshman year at the University of Glasgow – “I wasn’t excelling or engaged in the European history curriculum, so I went to my tutors and I said I needed to grow up and travel and see the world” — he got in touch with the Jewish Agency representative in Scotland.

He arranged to volunteer on Kibbutz Masada near Lake Kinneret, the famed Sea of Galilee, which holds much significance for Christians like him.

The veteran educator related his memories of this pivotal part of his life as he started his new job as senior education program associate of the West Orange-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, from which he received the Robert I. Goldman Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education in 2012.

“Living and working on the kibbutz, I met Holocaust survivors, volunteers from European countries, and Israelis who’d made aliyah,” he said. “Traveling all over Israel by bike, by foot, and by bus was a fabulous experience.

“I considered converting and making aliyah, but ultimately decided to return home.”

Nevertheless, the Israeli experience gave him “a turbocharge and has maintained a thread through my life. I learned a lot, and when I returned to Scotland the university had changed the history curriculum to put an emphasis on Europe during the Nazi era. And I excelled.”

Dr. Buchanan received his master’s degree in modern and Scottish history from the University of Glasgow and a Ph.D. in international relations from St. Andrews University, also in Scotland.

For the last 21 years, he taught middle and high school students in Randolph public schools, earning recognition as the Morris County Teacher of the Year and as the Randolph Township School District and Randolph High School Teacher of the Year.

“I started teaching a yearlong elective class about the Holocaust at Randolph High School in 2004 and built it up from a few students to five sections a day, meaning I was teaching the course to about 150 students per day at its height. I did that for about 16 years,” he said.

“Students are fascinated by this time period. They turned up because there was a fundamental need to know why this happened and in the manner it did. There is a lot of misconception out there and I think students are genuinely interested in the personalities and the way things unfolded and how choices were made.

“You can relate so much of this to their own lives and whether they should speak up and speak out about things they see. They are being approached online in a subtle manner by groups trying to radicalize them, so finding ways to help students realize when they’re being groomed by radical groups is of concern.”

Andrew Buchanan

Dr. Buchanan, who lives in Sparta, also worked as an adjunct professor in the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University, taught Middle Eastern history at the County College of Morris, established an educational consulting firm, and was a summer teacher training facilitator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“People often ask why I should care about the Holocaust,” Dr. Buchanan said. “The fact is that most teacher trainers at the U.S. Holocaust Museum are not Jewish. And why shouldn’t non-Jews be interested in this incredibly important event in world history? It’s compelling, fascinating, and terrifying.”

Having been raised and educated in Scotland, he added, “I feel I bring a perspective on some of the nuances of what it’s like to live in a complicated European environment. I understand the complexity and ugliness of certain European historical issues and can talk to U.S. students and teachers with a better understanding of why various European societies acted as they did.”

Dr. Buchanan has participated in JFR international Holocaust teacher education programs, including the Alfred Lerner Summer Institute for Teachers and the European Study Program in Germany and Poland.

The foundation’s core purpose is to give financial support to about 130 needy Righteous Gentiles in 13 countries. These are people who, at great personal peril, assisted Jews during World War II. In its courses for educators, the JFR presents Righteous Gentiles as moral and ethical exemplars.

JFR Executive Vice President Stanlee Stahl of West Orange said, “Over the years, Andrew has not only distinguished himself in numerous capacities within the JFR arena but has also furthered Holocaust education for the many hundreds of students he has taught throughout his career. We are so glad to have Andrew join us at this critical moment for our organization as we continue to expand our Holocaust teacher education programs.”

Dr. Buchanan praised Ms. Stahl as a “guiding force” in the JFR’s education arm, which was launched in 2000. He will be the foundation’s liaison with educators and manage all aspects of the JFR’s educational portfolio including classroom materials.

In 1994, New Jersey became one of the first five states to mandate Holocaust and genocide studies in public elementary and high schools. Today, 23 states have such mandates. However, implementation is not always ideal, a reality acknowledged by New York State’s recent decision to monitor Holocaust education compliance.

“In my experience, the quality of Holocaust education depends on the interest level of the individual teachers and the individual school systems and schools,” Dr. Buchanan said.

“If you have someone committed, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, then the status of Holocaust education in New Jersey is fabulous. Overall, it’s difficult to say. Across the mandated states there’s not enough money put aside for it, which is why organizations like the JFR exist to give high-quality teacher training.”

One initiative he is preparing to introduce is a distance-learning version of the five-day Lerner Summer Institute. It is to be called the Schulweis Fellowship in memory of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, who founded the JFR in 1986.

While the “very scholarly, intense and stimulating” residential summer program accommodates only 25 teachers, Dr. Buchanan explained, the Schulweis Fellowship will enable more teachers to access the materials and presentations on their own schedule and at their own pace.

This is an especially important opportunity for educators who don’t live in areas with Jewish communities or Holocaust resource centers, he noted.

Dr. Buchanan said he intends to expand online and multimedia resources to give teachers the knowledge and confidence to integrate their JFR training in all history classes — including U.S. history, European history, and world history — to provide context and insights.

Dr. Buchanan said that he reads the European press regularly “and the rise of antisemitism that I see is incredibly disturbing. Jewish communities are like the canary in the coalmine; if they start getting attacked, this is not a good sign. Therefore, it is incredibly important to protect our Jewish communities.

“Students need to understand the lessons to be learned about societies under pressure, about the complex problems they have, and how these problems can be addressed without turning on groups of citizens and targeting them.”

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