LA Organizations Partner with March of the Living for Virtual Yom HaShoah Conference

For many high school students in Los Angeles, participating in the March of the Living program is a rite of passage. Instead of learning about the Shoah through a history book, thousands visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in person each year.

In response to the cancellation of this year’s March of the Living, Milken Community Schools, the International March of the Living (MOTL), Holocaust Museum LA and Builders of Jewish Education Los Angeles have come together to create Gesher, a virtual two-day conference on Yom HaShoah.

On April 7 and 8, the virtual program will allow Jewish high school seniors from 10 schools in California, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Panama and Poland to learn about the Shoah.

The first day of the conference begins with a virtual tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, followed by two group interactions with survivors. The second day offers an in-depth look at different topics and themes related to the Holocaust, Jewish history and culture. More than 30 different educators will lead programs, including Holocaust Museum LA Board Chair Michele Gold, Stephen Wise Temple Rabbi David Woznica, AJU Professor Michael Berenbaum and POLIN Museum Chief Curator Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.

Maya Aharon — BJE’s director of teen experiential education programs and a Milken alumna — said before the pandemic, BJE’s MOTL delegation typically included more than 220 Los Angeles students from over 20 different local high schools. Her experience attending the March of the Living only motivated her more to make the virtual experience just as meaningful.

“[MOTL] is an incredible journey where the stories so often only studied from the pages of history textbooks come to life while walking through the places themselves. The BJE MOTL journey is contextualized with historical framing guided by Holocaust educators and enhanced by the testimonies and personal anecdotes [from] Holocaust survivors,” Aharon said. “As a Milken alum[a] and the director of the BJE March of the Living program, I am proud, humbled, grateful and inspired to be a part of this incredible two-day event.”

During the conference, students will be able to choose from a variety of sessions focusing on Jewish culture, film, humor, art, theology, medical ethics and the contemporary implications of the Holocaust.

Jordanna Gessler, vice president of education and exhibits at the Holocaust Museum L.A., said that the sessions dive into aspects of the Holocaust that students don’t often think about. In order to keep students engaged, the partners asked students what they would want to experience if MOTL turned virtual. One of the ideas integrated into the conference is the notion that the Holocaust impacted Sephardic, Southern European and North African Jews as well as Ashkenazi Jews. These conference discussions overlap with the  museum’s Yom HaShoah programming, which will occur on April 11.

“Even though the Holocaust is this thing we are taught [within the Jewish community], there is still so much to unpack,” she said. “We wanted students to feel it was their program… We want it to be a dialogue… We wanted to offer…  topics and themes that honestly most people don’t think about until graduate school. We felt that students who are curious and interested in music and film, humor, or history or writing would have the opportunity to connect their interests within the larger context of Holocaust history, which I think is really unique for high school students.”

A key element of the March of the Living experience is connecting students with Holocaust survivors.

Gessler said a key element of the March of the Living experience is connecting students with Holocaust survivors. The Museum and fellow coordinators wanted to make sure students still heard survivor testimonies during the virtual conference.

Throughout the two-day conference, 30 Holocaust survivors will share their stories with students. While nothing can replace marching through Auschwitz-Birkenau in person, the educators hope that students will still take away a deeper understanding of the Holocaust through the personal oral history provided by the survivors.

Eva Perlman, a Holocaust survivor in L.A., attended the March of the Living ceremony nine times before the pandemic prevented her from attending for a 10th time. She will be involved in the virtual conference and enjoys sharing her story of survival with young people.

During the Holocaust, Perlman and her siblings fled to the French mountain village of Autrans and lived in a residential Catholic school, where the owners protected their identities. When she shares her story, she not only shares her message of resistance and hope but also what can happen when communities protect one another.

“We must always remember and continue telling [the stories.] The students become the witnesses of the witnesses,” Perlman said. “It seems like the world is becoming more and more disunited… Many non-Jewish people helped us… Many people risked their lives. I’m sure some lost their lives. It’s so important to be good people… to be good Jewish people… to never give up and to have faith and hope and to do the best you can in any circumstance.”

Milken Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin is excited to offer a communal space where students of different backgrounds can come together and remember the Holocaust. As rabbinic director at Milken for 28 years, he knows how significant this trip is for seniors. Milken students travel to Poland and Israel as a class, learning about the Holocaust by actually walking through concentration camps. They form bonds with students around the world who are doing the same thing.

“I’m looking forward to them being able to differentiate what they’re interested in, but everyone on some level coming together to ask, ‘what are my responsibilities for the Jewish future?’” he said. “This technology allows [students] to teach each other and debrief… This is a way future generations can build together… and bring the idea of the Jewish covenant forward.”

Sophia Kangavari was looking forward to attending the March of the Living this year as a high school senior, but she’s also excited for the virtual experience. She appreciated that the Gesher partners asked for student input and ensured that they felt heard in the creation process.

“[2020] was very difficult for a lot of high schoolers around the world [who were] isolated from peers,” Kangavari said. “We wanted to maintain the connection that usually happens in person… We want to honor survivors through strengthening the Jewish future. We want to see that come out in these breakout rooms that are planned.”

Fellow Milken senior Sarah Lande is a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and will offer closing remarks at the conference. She heard her family’s stories about the Holocaust since she was a child, but she now realizes the impact and pride she has in making sure those stories aren’t forgotten.

“Knowing what they’ve gone through and knowing that all their grandchildren carry on the Jewish tradition makes me really grateful,” Lande said. “It’s important for more and more people to hear stories of survivors and keep stories going for [generations.] When people ask me, I am very open in explaining what my family went through and also where they are today and how they have overcome it. ”

A major component of March of the Living and Yom HaShoah programming is keeping stories of people like Lande’s grandparents alive so everyone knows what happened during the Holocaust. Whether virtual or in-person, Gessler said Gesher aims to provide meaningful in-person testimonies so students can carry the torch for future generations.

“We can’t replicate standing on the soils where a grand atrocity took place,” she said. “Instead of trying to replicate that, we want to have conversations about how the themes that are discussed in a place like Auschwitz can still exist. In that way, we invite students to honor those who perished in a different way. We take the lessons of the Holocaust and turn them into action to honor those people.”

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