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Bellaire rabbi trains at Yad Vashem pilot program

Thu, Aug 22, 2019

Congregation Brith Shalom Rabbi Ranon Teller, third from right, joined rabbis from across North America at Yad Vashem this summer.

Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust Remembrance Center, has developed a reputation as the go-to resource for Shoah educators, both Jewish and non-Jewish. This summer, the center conducted its first Rabbinic Seminar. The thinking was that the rabbis would go back to their communities and have a deep influence on teaching about the rabbinic and spiritual meanings of the Holocaust in a way that is different from the educators.

Fourteen rabbis from North America, and one from Israel, attended the Rabbinic Seminar from July 22-29. Their rabbinical affiliations ranged from Reform to Chabad. Houston-area Conservative Rabbi Ranon Teller was one of the participants.

The seven-day, intensive learning program was focused on helping rabbis develop the skills needed to create educational curriculum and content for Shoah studies in their adult education, schools and congregations.  

Speaking to the JHV in his office at Congregation Brith Shalom in Bellaire, Rabbi Teller said the Yad Vashem experience was outstanding for its depth of research, scholarship, documents and survivor testimonies.

“They have the top scholars in Holocaust education from around the world, analyzing and making sense of Shoah data,” said Rabbi Teller.

“One technique we were taught was how to listen to survivor testimonies without preconception, without bias and without our own interpretations. The objective was to find ways to listen accurately and deeply, to draw from their truth.”

Yad Vashem’s approach to education uses interdisciplinary strategies to engage the participants in understanding of the Shoah in its complexity. The seminar included modeled lessons, workshops and collegial interaction.

One Yad Vashem teaching approach is called “Safely In Safely Out.” 

“When you enter Yad Vashem,” said Rabbi Teller, the exhibits begin with healthy pre-war images from Eastern Europe. It’s a place rich with life, learning, community and joy – a safe place to enter. Then, coming out, the visitor to the center ends in a place of hope overlooking the hills of Jerusalem. Although the museum can bring people to a very dark place, they have a methodology for safety.”

It’s not clear how one would re-create that in Houston – if one could. And, how does one create a sense of safety in a time when Jews (and others) no longer feel safe in the United States?

“It’s going to require some reflection,” answered Rabbi Teller. “One of the things I hope to draw on is the vibrance of the pre-war Jewish community in Poland. We also have a vibrant Jewish community here in Houston. We do have our own resources we can draw on for hope.”

Many people who teach about the Holocaust approach the subject with some goal in mind. Some approach the Holocaust as a way to teach about tolerance. Others see the Holocaust as a specifically Jewish story. 

“For several decades, many thought you couldn’t really learn a message from this event because the darkness completely inverted human existence,” said Rabbi Teller. “The thinking was that the Holocaust was a one-time event in history, never to be replicated. I went to the seminar under this philosophy.

“Now, I think we need to draw meanings from the Holocaust. That’s step 1 for me. What those messages are, we can talk about. 

“There is deep controversy around those meanings, and those differences flared up during the seminar, among the diverse rabbis. Some believe the Holocaust is a uniquely Jewish story and are offended when others universalize the story. Others draw more universal lessons: It happened to us and now we have the responsibility to see it doesn’t happen to others. That provided a challenging debate during the seminar.

“I lean towards the more progressive end, in the sense of creating a more universal meaning from the Holocaust. I draw from Torah: We were once slaves in Egypt. We went through the Holocaust. So, let’s be mindful of other people going through tragedies of their own.”

While the collegial interaction was spirited, sometimes contentious, Rabbi Teller said he was impressed by the caliber of his rabbinic colleagues.

“The depth of their intellectual curiosity and their engagement with learning reminded me of my mission and purpose of being a rabbi. The camaraderie was wonderful. 

“The content was extremely challenging. I have a lot of respect for people in Holocaust education who can stand that kind of darkness. 

“A prominent pedagogical strategy at Yad Vashem involves personal stories. Over the years, personal stories have been one way for young people to connect with the subject. I’ve seen it work with our youth at Brith Shalom, getting to know one person’s story. During the seminar, we were exposed to a series of video testimonies, as learners. We hope to use them as teachers.”

Rabbi Teller added that there are some obvious structures that are already part of the Jewish year that lend themselves to Holocaust teaching. For example, the martyrology during the Yom Kippur Musaf service. 

“As a matter of course, I’ll be able to bring new things into what already exists. 

“I’d also like to work on revitalizing Yom HaShoah in the community. There’s an anxiety that, as we lose the generation of survivors, Yom HaShoah will have less and less impact the way it is currently structured. I think we need to prepare ourselves for the future.”  
Fri, July 3 2020 11 Tammuz 5780