Treading through an authentic World War II era German cattle car, walking on cobblestones that once lined the streets of the Warsaw ghetto and listening to the videotaped testimony of survivors allows high school students to take their understanding of the Holocaust to a level far beyond that gained from a textbook, observed David May-Stein, the assistant superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
That’s why May-Stein is a huge advocate of the Tolerance Education Program, an initiative of the Pittsburgh District of the Zionist Organization of America that takes hundreds of 10th graders from Pittsburgh public schools to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., each year to expand their knowledge of the Holocaust and the vile consequences of intolerance.
“The gift the ZOA is giving to Pittsburgh public school students is priceless,” said May-Stein. Through the trips, “the Holocaust becomes tangible. It’s an experience you can’t duplicate in a textbook, a video, or a project.”
This year, beginning in late February and continuing through mid March, the ZOA sent 528 students and 77 adult chaperones, including Pittsburgh public school teachers, to the museum.
“This is the ZOA’s signature program,” said Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Pittsburgh District of the ZOA. “Our membership thinks it’s very important.”
The Tolerance Education Program, which is unique to Pittsburgh, was created in 1999 by Zalman Shapiro to complement the educational curriculum of Pittsburgh schools. The program continues to remain valuable in promoting tolerance among those of different backgrounds, said its founder.
“Today’s world highlights the continuing relevance and vital importance of our Tolerance program,” Shapiro, 95, wrote in an email. “Over the years, the program has been very valuable in exposing several thousand students to the dangers of religious, ethnic and racial intolerance and the crucial need to combat such prejudices and hatreds.
“The positive ripple effects can translate into exponential impact if each student is so moved to embrace the diversity in his/her own life and influence others to do likewise,” he added.
The Tolerance Education Program initially ran from 1999 to 2005 and was restarted in 2012, Pavilack said.
“The program is phenomenal,” said Michael Dreger, the director of social studies for Pittsburgh Public Schools. “We have a unit on World War II and on the Jewish Holocaust, and this trip enhances and supports what the students learn in the curriculum. It could be life changing for some of our students. It’s a very powerful experience.”
Josh Rice, who has taught social studies at Pittsburgh Carrick High School since 1997, has chaperoned the Tolerance Education trip to Washington several times, including this year. He has witnessed the profound impact that a visit to the Holocaust Museum, and the viewing of tangible artifacts, has on the students.
“I believe when they walk into the museum, they have a pre-conceived conception of what the Holocaust is,” Rice said. “But they can’t truly visualize it until they walk through that rail car.”
When the students view the photographs, and gaze at the faces of the persecuted and the slaughtered, “the images drive home what we try to educate them about,” he continued. “The kids start to see the people for who they are.”
The visit to the museum “opens them up to tolerance on some level,” Rice observed. “They see that the victims didn’t do anything except live their lives. It gets kids out of their comfort zone.”
The trips to the museum continue to enhance Rice’s own knowledge of the Holocaust, he said, and make him a better teacher.
About 1,500 10th graders are enrolled in Pittsburgh public schools. Participants in the Tolerance Education Program are chosen based on their grades and their interest in joining the trip, among other factors. Once they return from Washington, they are required to complete attitudinal questionnaires, which are scored to measure the program’s impact and compose an essay, which is then entered into a contest with modest monetary awards and recognition at the Pittsburgh District of ZOA annual meeting, according to Pavilack.
The Tolerance Education Program focuses not only on the Holocaust as a specific event in history, Pavilack said, but also utilizes the UpStander curriculum developed by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh that draws connections between the events of the Holocaust and being an “UpStander” today.
An “UpStander,” Pavilack said, is “someone who will stand up when they see a wrong, and try to affect change for the better.”
“Naturally, we want the kids to learn more about the Holocaust, but not just as an historical event, like the War of 1812,” continued Pavilack. “We want them to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust and what happens when there is a lack of tolerance, and then channel that into making the students better citizens, better employees and better community leaders.”
The teachers ask the students to look for examples of UpStanders as they survey the museum and then discuss those examples when they return to school.
The UpStander concept is connected to the schools’ anti-bullying program, noted May-Stein, which teaches the children to act — and not just stand by — when they see other people being mistreated.
“This opportunity gives our kids a chance to be better people in the world at the end of the day,” May-Stein said.
In addition to providing transportation and admission to the museum, the ZOA also provides a t-shirt for each student and $100 per bus to cover snacks.
Many of the students who join the trip have never traveled outside of Pittsburgh before, Pavilack said. If time permits, the buses loop around Washington so that the kids can see the national monuments.
The Tolerance Education Program is carried out in cooperation with the Board of Education of the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, and receives funding not only from the Pittsburgh ZOA, but also from private foundations, businesses and the city of Pittsburgh.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.