Pittsburgh educators and students will move beyond brick and mortar walls this summer.
A newly formed non-profit, called Classrooms Without Borders, will have Pittsburgh education specialist Zipora “Tsipy” Gur lead 10 local educators on a subsidized study seminar at Yad Vashem in Israel from July 10 to 21. Gur will also take 45 people, including 15 teachers, to study in Poland in June.
Classrooms without Borders is a partnership with the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh — under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. It is a continuation of Gur’s work in Pittsburgh, which included leading more than 300 Pittsburgh educators on study seminars to Israel, and more than 100 to Poland, in the last 18 years.
A large part of Gur’s work has focused on making study seminars to Israel attainable for local educators.
“I could never understand how teachers can teach about Israel having never been there,” she said.
Eighteen years ago, she enlisted the help of local philanthropist Robert Glimcher to subsidize her trips. Now, Glimcher has agreed to help fund the new effort as well.
“I never knew what it meant to be a Jew until I went to Israel and I was in a Jewish world,” said Glimcher. “When Tsipy told me how many teachers in Jewish schools hadn’t been to Israel, I didn’t understand how someone who hadn’t been there could teach. So, we started a program where we’d send teachers from Jewish schools to Israel. ”
The Israel and Poland study seminars run by Gur and backed by Glimcher, while originally serving Jewish teachers teaching in Jewish schools, eventually expanded to include non-Jewish teachers from public, charter and private schools in an effort to bring tolerance and understanding to those of different faiths, according to Glimcher.
So it’s not surprising that Classrooms Without Borders’ first study seminar will be in Poland, and will include 15 teachers from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, two professors from Duquesne University, eight students from Winchester Thurston School, as well as a Holocaust survivor.
“The Polish trip will show what can happen without tolerance, and our roles in being understanding and tolerant and taking our responsibilities in life,” said Glimcher.
The Classrooms Without Borders seminar in Israel will place 10 educators — from Hillel Academy, Yeshiva Schools, Community Day School, Rodef Shalom, Tree of Life Congregation and Congregation Beth Shalom — at Yad Vashem for 10 days for an intensive look at Jewish life in pre-war Europe, the role of bystanders and perpetrators, and the Jewish and world responses after liberation.
While the study seminars are a key component to the work of Classrooms Without Borders, which also is receiving funding from the Pittsburgh Foundation, Gur said its most important work happens upon participants’ return to Pittsburgh.
“We will work with the teachers when they come back,” she said. “There will be follow-up lesson plans the teachers can use in the classrooms.”
Classrooms Without Borders is currently assembling its board of directors and has already put together “an amazing educational advisory board,” Gur said.
While Classrooms Without Borders is not yet funded beyond this year, Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said he is optimistic the program will continue. He noted that organizers already have ideas to help broaden its reach.
“I believe this program has legs and will continue for a long time,” he said.
He added, “Tsipy’s been running programs like this for years now. We know how it’s impacted teachers and students. It’s a very powerful experience.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)