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‘A universal event’: NC teachers to visit Holocaust Memorial Museum, synagogue in DC

North Carolina teachers visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. with the N.C. Council on the Holocaust. At the council’s trip last year, participants heard from a Holocaust survivor named Irene Weiss.
North Carolina teachers visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. with the N.C. Council on the Holocaust. At the council’s trip last year, participants heard from a Holocaust survivor named Irene Weiss. Photo courtesy of Mitch Rifkin

Charlotte English teacher Rebekah DiGavero has been teaching Holocaust literature in her classes for about 12 years, and said her students’ reactions are usually the same: stunned.

She usually teaches “Night” by Elie Wiesel, where he recounts his experience and loss of faith after surviving a concentration camp. Most of her students at Corvian Community School only have a surface-level understanding of the Holocaust until that point, she said, so they’re shocked once they’re confronted with the full scope of what happened.

She has even found teaching the material challenging as an English teacher because she said she doesn’t have the full background on what happened like a history teacher might. That’s where programs like the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust’s trip to Washington, D.C. come in.

DiGavero will join 35 other Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers on a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. this month. These teachers will join six others from Raleigh for the three-day trip, which also involves attending a Shabbat service at a local synagogue.

Mitch Rifkin is the chairperson of the N.C. Foundation on the Holocaust, which funds the council and its work. He said the teachers who go on this trip have never been to the museum, so this is an opportunity for them to learn more about the history and apply it to their classrooms.

“What we have found is these teachers come back so enlightened that the Holocaust really wasn’t just a Jewish event,” he said. “Hatred was a universal event.”

Teaching tolerance

In addition to the D.C. trip, the council holds workshops and seminars throughout the year, and social studies and history teachers aren’t the only ones who attend. DiGavero said she is looking forward to the trip because she thinks it will help her teach the Holocaust literature she uses for her classes.

“I want (my students) to understand that the Holocaust is not just an event that happened long ago and can never happen again, but it’s something that has happened on a smaller scale many times since, and that has the potential to happen again,” she said.

This year will be the council’s third trip to the museum. Rifkin said he thinks it’s increasingly important to educate teachers who in turn educate other teachers along with their students because “you recognize that in today’s society how close we are back to not liking each other.”

And if NC House Bill 437 becomes law, the council’s work won’t end there. The bill, known as the Gizella Abramson Holocaust Education Act, acknowledges that Holocaust and genocide education is essential and would require it to be taught in public middle and high schools in the state.

The bill passed the House unanimously last month and is now in committee in the Senate.

But Rifkin is optimistic about its chances. If it becomes law, the council will partner with the State Board of Education and North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching to develop the new curriculum.

Rifkin said providing this access to Holocaust education is even more important after incidents of anti-Semitic violence like the Pittsburgh shooting. He said he never thought he would have to worry if his children would come home alive from school or a place of worship.

“I want my children and their children’s children to experience a world of tolerance, and realizing that people are different,” he said.

The teachers are set to leave on June 26.

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