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The Complexity of Teaching the Holocaust in JK-12 Schools
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

Just a few weeks ago, a local official in Montgomery County, MD, where CESJDS is located, asked the public school system to evaluate its Holocaust curriculum, saying "There is a striking ignorance of the facts." Since most school curriculum across the United States is set on the local level, there is a range of coverage of the Holocaust. If in an area like Montgomery County, just outside Washington, D.C., there is concern that students may not be exposed properly to this important content, the same is probably true across the country.

Unlike public and other private schools, Jewish day schools cover Shoah education as part of our missions. For day schools, the question becomes 'when should we begin this curriculum and what should be the focus of this study be?'

At CESJDS, the study of the Shoah begins in the Lower School with experiential education at the youngest grades. Students through grade 3 learn about the Holocaust mostly on Yom Ha-Shoah via a campus wide moment of silence*, the lighting of memorial candles, and an explanation of the day within the context of the Jewish calendar. As students move into the upper elementary grades, they read children's literature, participate in communal remembrances, engage in developmentally appropriate discussions and experience a unique artifact exhibit. In addition to these curricular experiences, these older students also read and hear about the Holocaust at other points of the year. The guiding principle in the lower school years is based on the academic literature that children of an elementary school age are not at an appropriate cognitive or social-emotional development level to be exposed to the details of the Holocaust. One such study we rely on in planning on our curriculum is by Professor Samuel Totten.

As students move into middle and high school, there is an opportunity to expand their study of the Shoah in a significant manner in addition to ongoing Yom Ha-Shoah commemorations. By grade 6, students at our school experience their first visit to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum (USHMM) along with their parents. The USHMM believes that students in grades 6 and above "demonstrate the ability to empathize with individual eyewitness accounts and to attempt to understand the complexities of Holocaust history, including the scope and scale of the events." Later in middle school, students participate in the Holocaust and Human Behavior Seminar in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. This curricular unit employs readings, primary source material, and short documentary films to examine the challenging history of the Holocaust and prompt reflection on our world today.

Once students reach the high school, we engage them in an intensive study of the Holocaust. The formal study concludes with a 10-day visit to Eastern Europe as part of the Irene and Daniel Simpkins Israel Capstone Trip in 12th grade. In the high school years, students are asked to reflect on the more detailed history of the Shoah and some of the theological challenges the Holocaust raises. Studying this event within the context of their Jewish history courses fosters broader thinking for students in this area.

When, what, and how to teach the Holocaust is demands a high level of sensitivity and keen awareness of the complexity of the subject matter. Even in Israel, where all students learn about the Shoah there are debates about this topic. Unlike public and other private independent schools, Jewish day schools are uniquely positioned to both teach their students and participate in the ongoing educational conversation about how to best learn about and study the Shoah.

*Supported by the Bassin Family Endowment

Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.

What happened after an anti-Semitic bomb threat at my school
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

The following is an op-ed written by Rabbi Malkus and published in The Washington Post on March 10, 2017.

What happens when someone calls a school to say he plans to blow up the building while spouting a vile and sadistic anti-Semitic tirade? On Monday, the school I lead received such a call. One moment smiling, high-fiving students were entering the campus to begin their week; the next that sense of joy and welcome was shattered and became dread and danger.

My school was not the first to receive such a threat, and it was not the only school or community center affected that morning. In fact, since Jan. 1 more than 100 Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions across the country have been forced to react to bomb threats. Other faith traditions, including Muslim organizations and mosques, have also received threats.

What occurred because of that phone call? Two very different things.

The first result was a major disruption and violation of our right to safety and security. Students who had just sat down to study the ancient texts of our tradition, or gene therapy, or trigonometry, received the emotional shock that someone wanted to destroy their school simply because it was a Jewish institution. Parents who had just begun their workdays felt their hearts skip a beat as they received the news that their children were in danger. Faculty and staff were thrust instantly into positions challenging them to show their students care and calmness while, at the same time, they held the very real feeling that an explosion might take place at any moment. The staff and administration spent countless hours responding to parents, community members and the media. What should have been the beginning of a normal week of learning instead brought feelings of fear and anxiety accompanied by physical threat — exactly what the perpetrator sought to accomplish.

But something else — something wonderful and amazing — happened, too. Later that day, and throughout the rest of the week, I received countless emails, phone calls and letters from concerned citizens and local and religious leaders expressing their support for our students and our community. Then, a news conference was held where both U.S. senators from Maryland, three U.S. representatives and virtually all of the major elected officials of our county condemned the bomb threats and the hatred they represent in clear and strong language. The climax of this outpouring came when more than 40 religious leaders filled our stage to announce their condemnation and support. Thus, the second outcome of the bomb threat was an unexpected bolstering of my faith in what it means to be an American and in the American experiment that I believe in so deeply.

Seeing those religious leaders, representing Anglicans, Catholics, Episcopalians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, among others, was one of my proudest moments as an American. The leaders stood tall to proclaim that when one religious group's constitutional right to worship and congregate freely is threatened, all religious groups are threatened. This is what Americans do in difficult times: We stand up for each other.

At that moment, it was abundantly clear to me — and to the hundreds of others in the auditorium — that those responsible for threats made in hatred had unleashed an outpouring of love and support. As the United States experienced a precipitous rise in hate speech over the past year, I expected that it would be the Jewish community that would need to stand up for the rights of Muslims, Hispanics and other groups being targeted. Seeing those religious and elected leaders stand up for my own community reassured me that the American values that have enabled American Jews to flourish in this country will continue to be a source of strength for all Americans.

Rather than darkness and hate, a bomb threat brought light and hope for our future as a country.

Follow Mitch on Twitter @MitchMalkus.

Remarks from Press Conference Alongside Federal, State, and Local Leaders
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

This morning, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and Bender JCC hosted a press conference with remarks from Senators Cardin and Van Hollen; Maryland Representatives John Delaney, Jamie Raskin, and John Sarbanes; Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett; Montgomery County Police Department Assistant Chief Darryl McSwain; Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner; Jewish Federation of Greater Washington CEO Steve Rakitt; and Reverend Mansfield "Kasey" Kaseman, condemning the bomb threats against CESJDS, Gesher Jewish Day School, and organizations nationwide. Rabbi Malkus spoke alongside these esteemed individuals. Please find his remarks below.

This past Monday morning marked the start of the Hebrew month of Adar - a time of happiness in the Jewish calendar. The ancient Jewish sages offered a dictum that mi sh'nikhnas adar marbim b'simha, as the month of Adar begins, our joy increases. And, in fact, that is what was occurring at both of our campuses as students in our Lower School entered the building to song and dance, and students in our high school gathered for an assembly.

That sense of joy was shattered quickly as the Upper School Campus of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School received a threatening phone call warning of a bomb in our facility and promising destruction to Jewish souls. CESJDS is not the first school to receive such a threat and was not the only school or community center affected on Monday. Day schools from coast to coast, along with other Jewish institutions, were targeted with bomb threats.

As you can imagine, this had a significant effect on all those school communities and their students. I want to share the individual impact of the threat that we received with the knowledge that this type of threat has already had a similar impact on over 100 Jewish institutions since January 1st of this year. I also want to acknowledge that other faith groups, including our Muslim friends, have received similar threats.

So what is the disruption when a school receives a bomb threat? Students who had sat down to study the ancient texts of our tradition and others who were learning about gene therapy or trigonometry received an emotional shock that someone wanted to blow up their school simply because it was a Jewish day school. Parents who had begun their workday instantly felt their hearts sink as they received the news that their most precious children were in immediate danger. Faculty and staff were thrust into positions that challenged them to show their students immediate care, demonstrate calmness, and at the same time hold the very real feeling that an explosion might take place. Beyond these feelings, the staff and administration spent countless hours responding to parents, community members, and the media. What should have been the ushering in of a joyous Hebrew month became just the opposite, a feeling of dread that is accompanied by physical threat.

The Hebrew month of Adar has its climax when Jews celebrate the holiday of Purim and read from the Book of Esther. The Book tells the story about the Jews of a country called Persia that are threatened with annihilation because their customs are different than those of the king. Yet, the story becomes turned on its head when the plot of the king's advisor, Haman, is squelched by Esther and Mordechai. The text of the Book of Esther recounts that v'ha-hodesh asher nahafokh l'hem m'yagon l'simha u'm avel l'yom tov, the month was transformed from one of grief and mourning to a time of festive joy and one of light.

I am here to condemn the bomb threat to our school and all of these bomb threats, to call on our local and national authorities to do everything in their power to find the culprits and to bring them to justice, to enable faith communities across the United States to practice their beliefs freely.

I am also here to give thanks. I have personally experienced, and have heard over and over again that our elected officials condemn these acts in the strongest terms and that they are committed to protecting our community and ensuring our free exercise of religion. I have also seen dedicated and professional members of the Rockville and Montgomery County Police Departments respond immediately to the threat at my school. In addition, our school has received an outpouring of support from elected officials, national and local community organizations, and hundreds of emails from concerned citizens across the country – these are all the lights of joy that held us up in a difficult moment and which give me hope that our community and country will move forward from this difficult time. Just as the Jews of Persia turned sorrow into joy, we will turn these threats into safety, security, and unity. We will uphold the values of the United States as a beacon of light in a difficult and sometimes dark world.

Remarks from the CESJDS Class of 2017 Graduation Ceremony
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
CESJDS Head of School: Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

Read the remarks below that Rabbi Malkus delivered to the CESJDS Class of 2017 at their commencement on Sunday, February 12, 2017 at Washington Hebrew Congregation.


Class of 2017—congratulations! Mazal tov. You have officially turned in your last final, filled out your last college application, dominated your last game against the Hebrew Academy, won your last zimriah. It feels pretty good, doesn't it? Parents—I think congratulations are in order as well. I know it took a lot of schlepping... and early morning wake-ups... but you've raised some extraordinary young people. Let's hear it for your parents! And to the two thirds of you watching your last JDSer leave the nest, I'm pleased to thank you for having made your final JDS tuition payment.

Today is a special moment for your teachers as well—and for me especially. This is my fourth year at CESJDS. I joined this community when you were 9th graders, and I've been privileged to watch you grow, from your first Shabbaton to walking the halls of the Lower School a few weeks ago. Seeing you here is perhaps the highlight of my year. Which is really saying something, since this year my beloved Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series. (Go, Cubs, Go!)

In a little while, you'll get your diplomas. But first, I want to take a moment to reflect on the significance of this ceremony. What does this milestone—your graduation—mean? Yesterday, in Parashat Beshalach, we read the story of the Israelites escaping from bondage and making their way to Eretz Yisrael. Hopefully, the seniors don't take that as metaphor. In fact, if your senior capstone trip takes 40 years, I'd ask El Al for a refund. Appropriately enough, Beshalach means "letting go." It's about passing from one phase of life to another, from structure and certainty to freedom and the unknown. Like the people of Israel, the time has come for you to wade into the waters and begin a new adventure. The Promised Land—with no parental supervision—lies ahead of you. It's tremendously exciting... It's nostalgic... It's maybe a little bit scary.

Believe me, I know. I went from a Jewish day school of 45 graduates to a huge public high school with 1,000 students per grade, to an even larger university. During orientation at Columbia, some classmates and I stumbled upon police breaking up a card game in the Village—definitely not something I often saw in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up. It took me about three months to spend all of my money for the year on Broadway shows. My parents told me "tough luck"... but then relented and sent some more. I hope your parents are as forgiving.

You, too, will encounter different and likely challenging environments—whether in college, or in Israel, or during a gap year. You'll confront new ideas. You'll wrestle with questions about your personal relationships, about honesty and academic integrity, about who you are as Jews and as Americans. As dizzying as I found life after graduation, the world you're about to enter is filled with even more complexity... more shades of gray... and more contradictions.

It is easier than ever, for instance, to connect across nationalities and religions ... but fear of that openness is leading many people to turn inward and seek the comfort of their own tribes. We can access entire libraries worth of information in the palm of our hands ... but the cacophony on our TV and computer screens makes it harder than ever to discern the truth. Jews are more woven into the fabric of American life than ever before ... yet we've seen acts of vandalism and hateful messages appear... even in our own communities.

Faced with this reality, some of you may be inclined to turn around and seek the safety of Ms. Dagony's Hebrew class. Others of you may be wondering: How will you navigate the world beyond JDS? As you cross the metaphorical Red Sea mentioned in this week's parashah, will you sink or swim? Do you have what it takes to make it? The answer is: "Absolutely." You have what it takes. You're ready. You've got this. And the reason I'm so confident is because of what you have learned here... at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.

Now, I don't just mean the classes you've taken or the accomplishments you've racked up—learning how to sequence DNA ... publishing award-winning newspapers ... even how to make the perfect cake to win Color War. You're prepared because at JDS you've completed more than an exemplary general and Jewish studies education. You've also received a first-rate moral education. I think of it like the midrash of the convert, the Gentile who goes to Hillel and Shammai and promises to become a Jew if they can teach him the whole Torah while he stands on one foot. Shammai, you may recall, chases the man away. But Hillel accepts the challenge and replies with the essence of Judaism, in words short enough to Tweet: "Don't do to others what would be hateful to you. That is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary." You may not fully realize it yet...but the core values you've absorbed here... over the past four years or fourteen years... that's the whole Torah. The rest, with all due respect to your other studies, is commentary.

In more secular terms, consider the two types of virtues identified by New York Times columnist—and former JDS parent—David Brooks, in his recent book, The Road to Character, which I read this summer. Brooks distinguishes between what he calls "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." Resume virtues are "the skills that you bring to the job market and that represent external success"... Eulogy virtues are ones "that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kinds of relationships you formed."

Judging from the colleges you've heard from and will hear from, you have resume virtues in spades. But your eulogy virtues are, if possible, even more impressive. In the School's halls and in your homes, in big ways and small ways, you've discovered what it means to be a good Jew ... a good citizen ... and a good person. You haven't just learned strong values; you've lived strong values. You've studied Dickens and written code for robots—in Hebrew.

That's the lifelong love of learning and Torah, of mastering our oldest traditions and newest technologies, that you will draw on in the years ahead as curious, holistic learners. You've created an anonymous compliment system, posting encouraging notes on your classmates' lockers just to make sure everyone felt noticed and appreciated and included. That's the kehillah—the diverse, welcoming, inclusive community—you'll take with you and will always be a part of at JDS. You've inaugurated our new gender-neutral bathroom. That's v'ahavta l'reyecha, the love for your neighbor, that you will continue to demonstrate. You've passionately debated policies toward Israel, even as you join together to sing and dance on Yom Ha'atzma'ut. That's the profound love of Israel that I know will only grow deeper in the coming months and years. You've joined the Women's March to fight for your rights and volunteered to help feed the homeless. That's the enduring commitment to tikun olam that I know will drive so many of you to work to repair our broken world.

Sooner or later, in that complicated world out there, these values will be tested. By new and competing convictions ... By the demands of daily life ... By a desire to fit in. My wish for you as you cross over into this brave new world ... is that you hold fast to your values—the Torah of Hillel—even as you grow and mature as individuals. Cherish the convictions you've nurtured here at JDS. Look to them for answers and let them be guideposts on your journey through life. If you do that, you won't just survive in the years ahead, you will thrive in the years ahead.

In Beshallach we are told that ... as the Israelites wandered the desert ... "the Lord went before them by day in a cloud to lead them along the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light." In your own travels, I wish that you, like the children of Israel, are protected and sustained by the pillars of our faith and the light of our teachings. Class of 2017, we are so proud of you. We're inspired by you. And we can't wait to see what you'll do see next. Mazal tov, and good luck.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

Struggling to Engage Students in Civic Discourse
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
CESJDS Head of School: Rabbi Mitchel Malkus
The temporary immigration ban that President Trump issued as an executive order has raised strong opinions and feelings across the country and among educators struggling to address current events in school. How should teachers and school leaders address the concerns, and, in some cases, fears felt by so many students? How can educators help all students understand these unfolding events, examine the motivations behind different policy proposals, and reflect on America's stance towards immigrants and refugees? It is a challenge, to say the least, to develop an approach in an educational institution.

One Jewish day school I am familiar with wrote to their families on Monday noting that each of the four major Jewish denominations and countless other Jewish organizations had been critical of the executive order. That school expressed that "while it is difficult to reconcile recent actions with the lessons and values that we teach our students, we pray that we will find another path that will keep us secure, while providing a safe haven to those in dire need regardless of nationality or religion." This statement was seen by many families as overtly political, and, the following day, the school apologized for the statement and attempted to clarify its intent.

My view is that schools are not advocacy organizations and are not in the business of making statements on political issues. We are educational institutions and, while each school has a set of values that define the context in which teaching and learning take place, schools must remain non-partisan. As an educator, the question for me is "how can schools prepare students to become knowledgeable and engaged citizens of the United States and of the world?"

In practical terms, CESJDS did share guidelines with our faculty on how to address the conversations that would unfold this week. Here are some excerpts of the email that we sent.

While the School is not partisan, we welcome and expect students to engage in political discussions on a daily basis as they grapple with issues affecting our nation.

There is evidence from educational research that when young people engage in political discourse in school that they are really learning about the process of deliberation. Students in such classrooms learn how to form arguments and how to weigh evidence. In the practice of political conversation, the skills that are being learned are the skills of living in a democracy and understanding the common good.

A fundamental value of a classroom that engages in political discussion is that teachers create a culture of fairness for all viewpoints. Teachers ought to maintain their partisan neutrality in their classrooms even as they either open their classrooms to these discussions or engage in discussions that begin with student questions. When teachers share their partisan preferences they establish unfair classroom cultures and, despite their best intentions, may influence their students' thinking. If we are truly interested in developing students who are passionate about American civic life and have the ability to think for themselves, we must create classrooms that fairly entertain different viewpoints.

At the same time, we want student discussions to be informed by history and Jewish history. As Americans teaching at a Jewish school, we are keenly aware that in 1939, that the transatlantic ocean liner St. Louis left Germany carrying 937 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi oppression and seeking refuge in Cuba. As the boat neared Cuba, president Federico Laredo Brú suddenly canceled the landing permits of the Jewish passengers. Desperate, the boat went up the U.S. coast and people on the shore could often see passenger's faces through the porthole windows. The refugees were denied entry in the United States.

What is our responsibility to refugees fleeing war? Do Jews, seventy years removed from the horrors of the Shoah have a different obligation? What can we learn from the past to inform these decisions? History should inform our conversation today about the immigration ban and its potential implications.

The full communication made clear that the School encourages conversation about current events in classrooms. We asked teachers to foster an environment that nurtures pluralism, promotes and teaches civil discourse, and places history at the center of how we seek to understand today's events. This last point is critical. As an educational organization, we insist that history be used as a lens for understanding contemporary society and as a basis for developing a student's personal opinion.

Helping students develop their ability to deliberate political questions is an essential component of democratic education. Introducing controversial topics and current events into the classroom and into schools is a challenge. As an educator who practices in a pluralistic Jewish day school, I feel there is imperative to remain non-partisan, to empower students to engage in open conversation, and to insist on teaching history to inform these discussions.

Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus

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