How They Teach the Holocaust in Jewish Day Schools

April 10, 2017

Source: Curriculum and Teaching Studies


Few subjects are as critical to a Jewish school education as the Holocaust. Only with a meaningful Holocaust education can we be certain that memory of the Holocaust is kept alive for future generations; only with a meaningful Holocaust education can Jewish students be armed with the information necessary to combat Holocaust revisionism/denial, anti-Semitism, and the oftentimes intendant anti-Zionism; and only with a meaningful Holocaust education can students gain an understanding of their people’s history, and thereby a better understanding of their own identities.

Yet, despite its seminal importance, little research has been conducted about Holocaust education within the world of Jewish Day Schools. This paper represents a first step in answering basic questions about this critical yet often times neglected topic. Additionally, comparisons will be made between how the Holocaust is taught in Jewish Day Schools and America’s public schools.

For purposes of this study, a new survey was created to reflect the specific needs and demands of teachers in private Jewish Day Schools. This survey was based upon one created by this author in the analysis of Holocaust education within Illinois’ public high schools. In 2009–2010, this survey was sent to 163 Jewish Day Schools across the United States via Zoomerang. It was directed to the Head of the School who was asked to distribute the survey to any and all teachers who teach about the Holocaust in their classrooms. The list of surveyed schools was compiled using the RAVSAK membership directory along with the Jewish Directory Day School site.There were a total of 43 responses to the online survey. Eleven of the schools indicated that they were not full time Day schools, meaning that the total of schools who responded was 32, roughly a 20 percent response rate. Three of these then responded that they did not teach a unit of study on the Holocaust so the total number of responses was 29 schools. Given the low response rate, no claim is made in this study as to statistical validity, however, the initial results offer some tantalizing insights about Jewish Holocaust education and the differences between how the Holocaust is taught in 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 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: Mar. 20, 2019