State to fund Holocaust education | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

State to fund Holocaust education

Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill to allocate $400,000 to Milwaukee’s Holocaust education center, over a two-year period, to help train educators statewide. 

The bill was approved unanimously by the state legislature after representatives of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center testified at hearings in Madison. The state Senate passed the bill 32-0 and the Assembly passed it 97-0. 

The state funding comes after 2021 legislation requiring Holocaust and genocide education in schools led to increased demand for educator training and resources, which was fulfilled successfully by HERC, said executive director Samantha Abramson.  

HERC representatives told legislators how they had developed new lesson plans and training programs for educators, and that funding from the state would help HERC continue to expand its support for schools statewide. HERC is a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.  

State Rep. Jon Plumer and Sen. Dan Knodl were key advocates for the bill, among others. “It was just an incredible show of bipartisan support,” Abramson said. 

“Prior to 2021, HERC was operating under a much smaller budget. We had about a $400,000 budget and three and a half full-time staff. And we were mostly serving Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs,” Abramson said. Then, Jewish community advocates and allies worked towards a bill mandating Holocaust and genocide education in schools. It became law in 2021. Legislators wrote into the law that Wisconsin has a Holocaust center, widely understood to be HERC, that could help implement the education initiatives. 

“The scope of HERC’s mission suddenly changed,” recalled Richard Rocamora, who was treasurer of HERC at the time and is now chair of the HERC board. Rocamora said HERC shifted its focus to “hire staff and professional educators, to meet with educators around the state and educate them.” 

To date, HERC is the primary mechanism for implementing the Holocaust and genocide education requirement, and it has reached almost 80 percent of Wisconsin school districts, according to the governor’s office.  

Those efforts may have helped solidify HERC’s role. “We really are being looked at by the lawmakers in Madison, and by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, as the lead on providing education on the Holocaust and other genocides,” Abramson said. “And it means our budget has more than doubled and our staff has more than doubled. And we’re probably not done growing.” HERC’s staff is now the largest in its history, with seven full-time employees.  

Growth or support is expected for current work: HERC leads seminars for teachers and other educators, maintains a growing database of lesson plans, and sends speakers to schools. Add to that an emerging expense – security for traveling speakers from HERC’s Holocaust speaker’s bureau.  

HERC’s education team is also developing a plan to create hundreds of “trunks” – containers of Holocaust-related materials that will reside at schools, for educator use. The trunks could include copies of documents and photos from Wisconsin’s families with Holocaust histories. 

Lindsay McBride, a social studies teacher in the Northern Ozaukee School District, has been an advocate for HERC and for state funding and serves on HERC’s Teacher Advisory Group.  In addition to having her students meet Holocaust survivors, she told the Chronicle, “HERC has allowed my students the opportunity to hear from experts in the field of genocide education and literacy, both at my school and through field trips with students from other schools at no cost to our districts. HERC staff have also led restorative conversations with my students after antisemitic incidents that have occurred in our school.” 

Wisconsin ranks highest in Holocaust awareness among U.S. millennials and Gen Z, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Wisconsin’s leadership in Holocaust education is due in large part to the strong educational programming provided by HERC, according to the governor’s office.  

And yet, Abramson noted, “Antisemitism reported in middle and high school settings is the highest it’s been. It’s the fastest growing category of antisemitic incidents within Wisconsin right now.”  

“Making sure that we have these resources available in Wisconsin classrooms is just going to be a tremendous asset, not only for the Jewish community, but really for the state as a whole, because Holocaust education is a universal issue. Holocaust education really is something we invest in to make the next generation stronger, more empathetic and ready to take on the many forms of hate, discrimination, and challenges of the world.” 

According to data from HERC, from 2022 to 2023, HERC reached 336 of Wisconsin’s 421 school districts, trained 775 educators through workshops, and impacted more than 135,000 students. HERC advocates say that now, with state funding of $200,000 annually, over two years, they can maintain and even grow their work. 

“The Holocaust Education Resource Center does critically important work to educate and inform Wisconsinites about the Holocaust and to help build a more inclusive, accepting, and welcoming state,” the governor said, in a statement.