Young Diaspora Jews learn about Holocaust through unique Israeli perspective

Students at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel visit Auschwitz. Credit: Courtesy Jewish National Fund.

By Megan Turner  

Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah in Hebrew, challenges Israelis to acknowledge, remember, and respect the impact of such a dark time in Jewish and global history. Foreigners who find themselves on holiday in Israel during this day of observance are oftent taken aback at how an entire country is able to come to a standstill and complete silence, while sirens wail marking the date.

The observance of Yom HaShoah doesn't stop with the sirens. Educational programs, ceremonies, and intimate conversations with survivors and their families are just some of the ways in which Israel and Israelis recall the horrific days of the Holocaust. For Jewish American students at the Jewish National Fund-sponsored Alexander Muss High School in Israel, their experience is even more unique—the students learn about the Holocaust as Israeli students do. 

AMHSI-JNF provides a semester abroad in Israel for American high school students grades 10-12. While students’ course load includes core classes, like math and science, they also learn much more. “We try very hard to get the students to strengthen their Jewish identity and their connection to Judaism through Israel, the land, and its history,” said Danny Stein, 31, a history teacher at AMHSI-JNF. 

Currently, 61 high schoolers from public schools across the U.S. are taking part in a four-month program at the school’s Hod HaSharon campus, located just outside cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. Students study Jewish history daily and spend half of their learning time on-site, experiencing history firsthand. “We start with the Torah, also referred to as the first five books of Moses in the Old Testament, and end with present-day Israel,” Stein said.

The students’ journey begins with two intense days in Israel, one studying the history of World War II and the beginnings of the Holocaust, and the second spent at Israel’s national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem. While at Yad Vashem, students explore the somber exhibition halls with a guide and also attend a talk given by a Holocaust survivor.

Students wrestle with many difficult questions about Jewish identity, history, and the Holocaust during this trip. “They process how to interpret and find meaning in their experience at Yad Vashem and how to turn it into something they can build on,” explained Reuven Spero, an AMHSI-JNF faculty member.

But this is where a typical Holocaust education program has a twist: as soon as the students finish their visit to Yad Vashem, they get on a plane and spend a week in Poland. “We try to help the students connect to the Holocaust intellectually and emotionally,” Stein said. Students visit concentration camps, synagogues, and cemeteries all over Poland, but they also get an immersion in what life was like pre-WWII in the rich and vibrant Jewish communities that were once a large part of Poland’s national fabric. They walk away with a very personal and deeper understanding of what was lost in the Holocaust. 

Upon their return to Israel, students continue with their lessons in Jewish history and visit Independence Hall, and continue to learn about the creation and the current modern State of Israel. “Where students were singing the Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) in a concentration camp just a few days ago, now they’re singing it in Independence Hall where the State of Israel was officially proclaimed,” said Stein.

Ellen Sussman, a 17-year-old student from Hopkins High School in Golden Valley, Minn., said of her trip to Yad Vashem and Poland, “It moves me just knowing what the Jewish people went through and how they stuck with their beliefs and values through it all. It’s really amazing that people made it through the Holocaust, and it makes me proud to be a Jew.”

Posted on May 4, 2016 .