Becoming a TOLI Educator

If you follow me on social media (Instagram & Twitter: @ksluiter), you know I spent ten days in New York City as part of the TOLI Summer Seminar. TOLI stands for The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies & Human Rights. I experienced a TON in those ten days, so I thought, rather than write a novel about it, I would split it up into a series of posts to avoid the TL;DR effect.

The entire reason I was there was to learn and grow as a Holocaust and human rights educator. Roughly 20 educators (teachers, librarians, professors) from the United States and Europe gathered every day on the 5th floor of Pace University in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan to learn and read and write with each other.

The seminar was set up much the same as The National Writing Project (I participated twice in the Third Coast Writing Project through Western Michigan University with credits going toward my MA ten+ years ago): we sat in the round, we wrote in response to things, we shared, we worked on individual writing pieces to be shared on the last day.

All of this was done through the lens of teaching the Holocaust and other human rights violations both abroad and right here in the USA.

On the second full day (Thursday, July 7), we walked to the Museum of Jewish Heritage where we zoomed with Dr. Robert Williams, the Deputy Director for International Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). He did a presentation on antisemitism that included many current issues with propaganda and disinformation and how it spreads, particularly on the internet. We learned a lot of history about how it came to the United States as well.

We were given quite a bit of time in the exhibits as well. The newest exhibition called The Holocaust: What Hate Can Do was an extensive look at Jewish life and culture as well as a presentation of Holocaust history.

The exhibit includes over 750 original objects and survivor testimonies from the Museum’s collection, many of which were donated by survivors and their families who settled in NYC and the surrounding area.

I was particularly interested in how the presentations were organized since I teach my students about Jewish life in Lodz, Poland before and during the war. One thing I want to do more of (and this came up later in the seminar too) is to focus on acts of resistance and the amazing resilience of people after tragedy.

Lunch was in the museum’s Kosher restaurant, LOX at CafĂ© Bergen. I had the Mediterranean Salad (Kumato tomatoes, israeli cucumbers and shaved pickled onions oliver, capers, israeli salad, olive oil, lemon and oregano dust) and a bit of chocolate strudel. It was all DELICIOUS!

I will explain why there is a small multi-colored bunny in many of the photos in another post

We wrapped up our day at the Museum of Jewish Heritage with a visit to the Garden of Stones (by Andy Goldsworthy). Each tree was planted into a hollowed out stone. They started out very small, but now this is what they look like. We wandered in this calm pocket of the city reflecting on everything we experienced during the day.

The next day, Friday (July 8) we started the day zooming with a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Irene Hasenberg Butter (author of From Holocaust to Hope: Shores Beyond Shorts, A Bergen-Belsen Survivor’s True Story) and hearing her testimony. We also viewed a video called “The Longest Hatred” that gave the history behind the antisemitism in the Christian church.

Friday evening, we rode in vans through Manhattan up to White Plains, NY where we were invited to join Dr. Jennifer Lemberg (one of our TOLI seminar leaders) and the Congregation Kol Ami for their Shabbat service. Before the service, we met Rabbi Shira Milgrom in their chapel in the woods where she answered all our questions about the artifacts like the Torah scrolls and the eternal light.

Rabbi Shira was so patient with some of us (ahem…me) who had little knowledge of Judaism and Jewish worship practices.

The Shabbat service was in the main sanctuary. Shabbat begins Friday at sundown, which is why the service is held Friday evening. I was able to do a lot of cool things in my ten days with TOLI, but I think the Shabbat service is what will stick with me the longest. There was definitely a familiarity as I watched multigenerational worship: small toddlers breaking loose from their parents, elderly congregants smiling knowingly, the feeling of family and togetherness. Of course there was much that was different too–there are no crosses or Jesus imagery in a synagogue. I wrote a lot about all this in my journal, but I’m not sure I will publicly process that.

Part of Shabbat includes lighting candles and reciting a blessing, which the congregation was able to do at the start of the service.

There is a lot of singing and praising God during the Shabbat service. There was a fantastic cantor and a great band.

After the service, Rabbi Shira showed us the ark where multiple Torahs are held and let us enter to see all the beautiful designed covers for them. Above the ark is where the eternal light is kept, and when we stand on the rock under it, we serve as the connection between heaven and earth.

One of the scrolls was in a cover that was made to honor those affected by the Holocaust. The cover was made from a prisoner’s uniform and the scroll was one rescued from Europe after WWII.

Finally, before returning to the lower East side of Manhattan, we celebrated Shabbat together by breaking Challah and having dinner. Our hosts (Jennifer and Sondra Perl) recited the blessing over the wine and then we passed around the Challah before beginning our meal together.

Between our first Shabbat together and our last, we dove into many other things, but one more that focused on Jewish heritage and culture happened on Wednesday, July 13th. That evening we were uber-ed and taxi-ed up town to the TOLI headquarters: The Olga Lengyel Memorial Library on Manhattan’s upper east side.

We were warmly welcomed to the richly decorated, lovely former home of the TOLI namesake. We were immediately drawn to the comfortable furniture and the walls covered in books and art.

After the most bougie box meal I have ever had in my life that we got to eat in Central Park, we had a private Klezmer concert back in the library.

Rabbi Greg Wall, the clarinetist of the group, explained the components of what makes Klezmer music “Jewish” as well as what part of Jewish culture each song is a part of. He and the other musicians are wonderful storytellers and incredibly knowledgeable–they kept us laughing and got us singing and even dancing! I could have listened for hours!

There is so much more to the ten days that went into the work we did, but to me learning about Jewish heritage and culture–both historic and contemporary–were the highlights of the trip for me. As a teacher, I will be grounding my human rights focused curriculum in looking at the Shoah and why the phrase “Never Forget” continues to be applied to so many atrocities, so experiencing as much as I can that will help me lead from a place of knowledge, empathy, and love is so important.

I have more to write about and reflect on, but this is really what it was all grounded in. This work we did started from looking at “what hate can do” and moved us into the theme, “teaching in troubled times.”

I am so proud to stand with the educators in this photo. I feel like I have really found the work I want to do and the people I want to do it with. I really hope to do this team and what they have taught me justice as I begin to look ahead at planning for my 2022-23 eighth grade students.

If you would like to contribute, I have two wish lists on Amazon: a class supply list as I prepare to get what my students will need for all that I have in store for them; and a classroom library wish list that I have added many new books to as I have been learning and working with others.

About Katie

Just a small town girl...wait no. That is a Journey song. Katie Sluiter is a small town girl, but she is far from living in a lonely world. She is a middle school English teacher, writer, mother, and wife. Life has thrown her a fair share of challenges, but her belief is that writing through them makes her stronger.

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