How They Teach the Holocaust in Jewish Day Schools

Though Holocaust education is of critical importance in the world of Jewish Day Schools, little research has been conducted about it. The purpose of this paper is to answer some critical questions about how they teach the Holocaust in Jewish Day Schools–the who, what, when, where, how, and why questions. Additionally, comparisons are made between how the Holocaust is taught in America’s public schools versus Jewish Day Schools.
There can be little question that Holocaust education is secure in America’s Jewish Day Schools. Teachers in Jewish Day Schools are highly educated. They have extensive knowledge about the Holocaust and subject, and though additional training would be preferred, they feel well prepared to teach the Holocaust. Significant time is spent on the teaching of the Holocaust: More than half the teachers spend one month on the topic, while more than 10% spend more than one month. Indicative of their belief in the importance of the subject, the Holocaust is treated as its own unit and not as a subset of a larger unit, e.g. WWII. Over 90% of teachers reported that a unit of study on the Holocaust was taught in their schools. Teachers rely on traditional materials including film, secondary sources, and survivor literature, and they use traditional methods in teaching about the Holocaust such as discussions, read alouds, and lectures. Only a small proportion of teachers (21%) report using simulations of any kind. Also traditional, are the methods used in assessing students understanding of the topic, i.e. discussions, papers, and presentations. Perhaps, most indicative of the Holocaust’s importance in Jewish Day Schools, is that over 90% of teachers believe that the subject would continue to be taught even if they were no longer employed by the school.

However, a comparison of how they teach the Holocaust in Jewish schools with how they teach it in America’s public schools raises the same concern as Dawidowicz expressed in her 1990 article. Rather than focusing on the Holocaust as a particular event in time with specific causes, antisemitism, in public schools, the Holocaust has been transformed into an abstraction with general causes–stereotyping, prejudice, and intolerance of others. However, historically, the Holocaust was not about hatred of the other, it was about hatred of Jews, in particular. As the Holocaust becomes increasingly subsumed under an even more general category, i.e. genocide, we move further away from any historical understanding of the Holocaust. The difference between how the Holocaust is defined and understood in Jewish Day Schools versus public schools does not reflect simply differences in semantics or style, but goes to the very core of what the Holocaust was, how it should be remembered, and how it should be taught. In effect, it is a battle over memory and the stakes could not be higher because whoever wins the battle will determine the fate of American Holocaust education for decades to come. If the universalist position becomes the dominant position, it is possible that the real historiography of the Holocaust will be taught by Jews to Jews within the context of Jewish Day Schools.

Updated: Jul. 27, 2017