HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Barrack Centropa Museums of European Jewry

by Susan Schwartz and Amy MalissaHersz Issue: Teaching Jewish History
TOPICS : Jewish Studies

Since 2011, 9th graders at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy begin their study of the Holocaust by focusing on what was lost, not only how it was lost. We culminate these studies with the production of a sophisticated student-produced museum highlighting a different vibrant Jewish community each year. It is crucial to remember how Jews lived, not only how they died, and why their traditions were so important. Studying the diversity within these Jewish populations throughout Europe breaks down stereotypes and long held misconceptions. Students research religious life (with both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions), youth movements, art, institutions, and prominent as well as ordinary individuals from the region being studied.

This process prompts students to make this history a part of their history. Students begin with a family history of their pre-America roots followed by lessons on Jewry of the region they come from. Then they select and research a topic. Teachers and students always look for family connections for students to pursue: family stories, research on the shtetl of origin, etc. It is essential that the subject matter be relevant to each student. In the course of their research, they learn both what was unique about the community, such as language, music or food, and what they share with people from this distant time and place, such as summer camps, youth groups and Jewish schools. Previous museums examined Czech, Polish and Sephardic Balkan Jewry. This year’s museum will feature the culture and history of German Jewry.

Students use their research to produce 3’ x 6’ freestanding museum-quality panels. Each panel tells a personal or historical story with photos and text. Some students also create videos on their topic. The panels and videos address some of the following questions: When did Jews first come to the region? Where did they live? What cultural practices defined these communities? What contributions did Jews in this community make to Jewish history or to world history and culture? How did their communities function? What did their shul look like? What characterized their relations with the non-Jewish community? What happened here during WWII? After? Now?

Our students host a powerful, emotional museum opening on Yom Hashoah. Student docents train intensively to conduct tours for adults and student groups. After a featured speaker, the culture of the region being studied is brought to life through storytelling, regional Jewish music performed by students and the serving of regional food dishes.

This year, to highlight the importance of German Jewish contributions to both Western culture and Jewish history, in addition to the panels and films there will be an art gallery featuring reproductions of the work of Jewish artists who were central to Germany’s art scene during the period between the world wars and a salon featuring students role-playing important intellectuals from the era of Jewish emancipation through the Weimar Republic.

After the museum opening, the panels and videos remain on display at the school for a week so that Barrack classes can visit, as well as members of the wider school community. The exhibit also coincides with the annual Yom Hashoah assemblies run by the HEAR (Holocaust Education and Reflection) club. The assemblies feature students speaking about visits to the camps during the Poland portion of their trimester abroad at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, speeches by survivors and liberators, discussion panels, movie clips, and more recently, presentations by children and grandchildren of survivors.

The Barrack Centropa Museum project began in 2010 when history teacher Lilach Taichman attended a Centropa Summer Academy in Vienna, Budapest and Prague. She envisioned bringing this exhibit to Barrack as a hands-on means to teach her students about the Holocaust. The first two years, Centropa supplied many of the museum panels; by 2013, all of the panels were exclusively student-produced.

Through this experience, our students work collaboratively, gaining critical research and writing skills. They learn how to share this material via new graphic technologies and hone their communication skills. More importantly, they are forging strong connections with the surrounding community and across generations within their own families.

The vibrant lives and history our students are able to highlight in this museum tell the story of a world that has not truly vanished as long as our children carry these memories forward into the future.¿

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Teaching Jewish History

Is Jewish history the linchpin to Jewish identity formation, the weak link in day school Jewish studies, or perhaps both? Jewish history provides students with critical links to their past and gives them the context for their own experiences. Discover insights in this field from senior scholars and educators, and find creative new initiatives being used by teachers in day schools today.

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