MILWAUKEE – When Shay Pilnik, executive director of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, first began working with the organization in 2014, HERC was able to reach out to between 15,000 and 16,000 students in Wisconsin every year. But now, that number has blossomed to 20,000.
“We see an increase in interest in the topic. And the interest reflects the uptick in instances of intolerance that this country has witnessed over the last couple of years,” Pilnik said. “The demand for the services that we offer is far greater than our capacity at this point.”
As the only organization of its kind in Wisconsin, HERC is a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. HERC offers educational services and programs that help teachers, students and others understand the significance of the Holocaust. In its mission statement, HERC dedicates itself to upholding the values of tolerance and diversity, as well as respect for all people. But Pilnik points out that although there is a definite focus on teaching tolerance, HERC is not the only organization in the state to do this.
“What’s unique about us is that we teach tolerance through the lessons of the Holocaust,” said Pilnik. “We’re here to make sure that that moment and the important lessons that must be drawn from it will never be forgotten.”
Creating a classroom plan
To achieve its mission, HERC actively reaches out to schools and teachers while also working with those who come to them in search of resources and support. The first step in creating a plan for a classroom is a discussion with Brittany Hager McNeely, director of education and engagement.
“It’s really just gaining a better understanding of the students, their maturity level, what kind of books they’ve already read, what they’ve already talked about and then really kind of coming up with the best arrangement to compliment what the teacher has done in the classroom and how best HERC can help them meet their goals,” Hager McNeely said.
HERC may then have an educator visit the classroom to discuss the Holocaust or do activities with students. Sometimes educators help teachers open or close units on the Holocaust. In some instances, HERC works with their Speakers Bureau of Holocaust survivors and children of survivors to have an individual speak to a class.
But HERC’s support extends outside of the classroom as well. Teachers can attend teacher training events that help them address the Holocaust in their lessons.
Milwaukee Public Schools
“In November, we did one for (Milwaukee Public Schools) middle and high school educators on the topic of propaganda, giving them the tools and resources to take back in the classroom and teach their students. That was a really successful program,” McNeely said.
In addition to the value of the lessons HERC offers, the tireless efforts of staff and volunteers have played a large part in the organization’s expansion, resulting in a new partnership with Milwaukee Public Schools this last year. This partnership facilitated a new initiative called RID, which stands for Respecting Individual Differences.
“What we wanted to do with this initiative was rather than be visitors to a school, where we normally bring a survivor or teach a program, we created what I would call a mini course on the Holocaust,” said Pilnik.
The RID program consisted of a series of five presentations and a materials trunk for teachers and students including several resources on the Holocaust. The program culminated with a survivor speaker and a field trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois.
In a separate project titled “Repairing the Glass,” HERC worked with Bader Hillel Academy in Whitefish Bay to create artwork that reflected student interpretations of Kristallnacht. Students also met via Skype with a rabbi from the last standing synagogue in Leipzig, Germany.
HERC has also spread its programming beyond public and Jewish schools by establishing strong connections with Catholic schools. Last summer, Pilnik led a trip to Israel with a group of Catholic teachers, and also spoke to 150 students at Catholic Central High School in Burlington about embracing diversity.
“Trying to expand our outreach to parochial schools as well has been really important in the past year,” said Hager McNeely.
And the organization doesn’t just stick close to home.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve done a significant expansion both in southeastern and northeastern Wisconsin. We’re very active in the Fox Valley,” Pilnik said, with Hager McNeely adding, “We definitely just don’t limit our educational programming to Milwaukee.”
While Pilnik noted that most of the students HERC works with are in middle and high school, there are also programs for college students. With DiverCity, a partnership with local colleges, students visit Pinat Hatikvah, or the Corner of Hope, a memorial and educational space on the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Karl Jewish Community Campus in Whitefish Bay. The students listen to a testimony of a Holocaust survivor and then tour locations representing several different faiths prevalent in the area, such as the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek.
“I really want to show them that with all the difficulty of living alongside each other in this mosaic of communities comprising the Milwaukee community, we benefit from that experience if we can learn who are neighbors are and overcome the fear and ignorance that might lead to hate,” said Pilnik.
With all of the work HERC has accomplished, Hager McNeely pointed out the importance of volunteers.
“The Holocaust Education Resource Center is small staff-wise,” she said. “The volunteers are really people who believe in HERC’s mission, community members who want to help support us in going out and teaching these students in our communities.”
Ultimately, Pilnik explained that HERC’s goal is not to just teach the cold, hard facts of the Holocaust.
“At the end of the day you can teach the Holocaust, you can teach it on a geopolitical, international, cosmic, metaphysical level, but you can also teach it in the most practical, daily level. What we actually do with HERC is we always keep in mind the history lesson and at the same time the wellbeing of the students’ own social fabric, how accepting people who are different from them can impact their own communities.”
Those who are interested in volunteering with HERC can contact Brittany Hager McNeely at BrittanyH@MilwaukeeJewish.org or at 414-963-2714. HERC is seeking volunteer educators to visit classrooms as well as children of Holocaust survivors who are willing to tell their parents’ stories.