Pittsburgh public school students visit national Holocaust museum
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Pittsburgh public school students visit national Holocaust museum

ZOA sponsored trip provides an opportunity for area 10th graders

Students from the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies who took part in ZOA’s trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum.Photo by Phyllis Roberts
Students from the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies who took part in ZOA’s trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum.Photo by Phyllis Roberts

“The Holocaust seems a lot like the struggles black people went through to me. People can learn to treat people more equally from this.” *

Every year since 1999, the Pittsburgh District of the Zionist Organization of America has sent hundreds of Pittsburgh public school students to tour the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Close to 7,000 children have participated since the program began.

This year, 11 buses transported more than 500 students and chaperones to the museum.

The trip is attended primarily by 10th-graders, according to Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Pittsburgh District of ZOA, who said all the students who go have three things in common: “They have studied the Holocaust and Word War II, have a B average and (don’t have) disciplinary issues.”

Some history and social studies teachers also require their students to complete a classroom exercise to qualify.

During the trip, students watch Holocaust-related movies. This year, the students screened “Denial,” which recounts the story of Deborah Lipstadt, a history professor sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving. The high schoolers also watch a short orientation video about the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“The voices from the Auschwitz exhibit. Everything felt so real, so personal, so impactful, it resonated with me.” *

For the first time, four staff members from the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh accompanied the students, said Pavilack.

“The Holocaust Center was instrumental when this program was founded, assisting us and providing direction. This year, we’re working with the executive director, Lauren Bairnsfather, and her staff. They’ve engaged the students on the trip, have the latitude to talk and explain the film or not even show the film if they would like to have a discussion instead.”

Bairnsfather was glad to see the collaboration between the two organizations.

“Our interest at the Holocaust Center is to always make sure that Holocaust education in the region is as strong and as meaningful as it can be,” she said.

Bairnsfather traveled with a group of students from Brashear High School, which she said has the most diverse student body of any high school in the Pittsburgh public school system. It gave Bairnsfather the chance to see how the experience affected disparate groups like “students from other countries.”

The visit was an important first step in building deeper relationships, both with ZOA and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, she said.

“Our goal is meaningful relationships, not what we call drive-by programming. In the future, we can have even more engagement through the schools with the teachers, and that would improve the experience even more in the way that we would like to.”

“When I walked through the train car, I really felt like I was one of the many people who had to endure that and I was generally scared. I had to let several people pass me before I felt safe to go through.” *

Bairnsfather understands the importance of viewing things through a “trauma lens,” especially after the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life building.

“What they see might be upsetting to them, and it’s OK if they need to step out of the exhibit for a few minutes,” she said. “There is no wrong response. I hope that made it easier for them and made it a more meaningful experience.”

The students on the trip also tour the National Mall, which Pavilack views as an important part of the trip.

“A lot of these kids have never been to Washington, D.C.; some of them have never been out of the city,” he said. “Forty-eight or 49% of the total Pittsburgh public school population are low-income students, so this is really something for them and it’s gained in popularity.”

“The responsibility to prevent discrimination and oppression in my society and prevent something like the Holocaust from ever happening again.” *

Phyllis Roberts is a physics instructor at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies. This was her fourth year as a trip chaperone. She said the students who take part in the trip are the “best kids ever.”

“You would be amazed if I could trap the conversations I heard walking through the museum with the children and just how serious all of them take this,” she said, adding she was glad the students also had the opportunity to see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial this year.

The trip, she said, “raised the awareness of not to hate, and the opportunity to see the devastation hate caused and its lingering effects.”

Such a meaningful experience isn’t easy to coordinate. While Pavilack said the trip is a highlight of his yearly duties, it does require time and donors. Yet the extra work involved is worth it, he said: “From the feedback we’re getting, the trip makes a real impact.”

*Comments made by Pittsburgh public school students who filled out surveys after the trip. pjc

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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