Five Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators, including Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, will be traveling to Poland this summer with Classrooms Without Borders — accompanied by a Shoah survivor — to help enrich Holocaust and genocide education throughout Pittsburgh’s schools. But in winning approval from the school board, the trip faced spirited denunciations from two members, as well as their “no” votes.
Board members voted 6-2, with one abstention, approving the educators’ participation in the July 1-9 trip. The trip is not being financed through the school performance budget, according to Hamlet, but by a foundation grant.
CWB was founded in 2011 by Zipora Gur in association with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. It provides experiential professional development for educators through study seminars that take place outside of the classroom. CWB has taken groups of educators and students to Spain, Germany and Israel, as well as Poland.
The board discussed the pros and cons of the trip for about 20 minutes at the May 23 meeting. That discussion can be viewed at livestream.com.
While the majority of school board directors was highly supportive of the trip, Moira Kalieda, representing District 6, was an outspoken opponent. Kalieda, who also serves as chief of staff to Pittsburgh City Councilman Anthony Coghill (District 4), argued that Pittsburgh Public Schools is already doing enough in the area of Holocaust education, and she intimated that by approving a Holocaust education trip to Poland, the school system would be taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This organization puts us on a slippery slope of not representing the true struggle in that area,” she said in reference to CWB. “We do have a lot of Holocaust education that goes on…It’s a slippery slope into our geo-political fights and it may not be representative of all the people in that region, especially the Palestinian people, and I will be voting ‘no.’”
Despite the fact that school-based funds will not be used to cover the cost of the trip, Kaleida nonetheless argued that the board should not support participation in the seminar and focus instead on African American education and the history of slavery.
“It would be great if we had money to do trips everywhere, right?” she said. “But we have a legacy in this district of not supporting our students of color, our black and brown students.
“The idea that we are going to come in with the Holocaust, which is a well-covered subject in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, according to many history teachers — and I’ve spoken to English teachers as well — the idea that we will invest what little resources we have in something like this…I understand you got grant money because of the concerns we raised, but I would like to see that grant money go to a program like the one in Ghana, somewhere else, and bringing it back and having this much focus on our African American studies.”
Kaleida did not respond to a request from the Chronicle for further comment.
In recent years, Pennsylvania has placed an emphasis on the importance of Holocaust and genocide education, and in 2014, put into law Act 70 to “strongly encourage school entities in this Commonwealth to offer instruction in the Holocaust, genocide and other human rights violations.”
A recent study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany demonstrated the need for Holocaust education: More than one-fifth of millennials in the United States have not heard of, or are not sure if they have heard of, the Holocaust. Eleven percent of U.S. adults overall have not heard of the Holocaust or are not sure if they did. And two-thirds of millennials cannot identify what Auschwitz was.
Board member Kevin Carter of District 8 also voted against allowing administrators to travel with CWB, reasoning that it would be more beneficial to have teachers participate in such a trip because they have a direct impact on students in classrooms. He also emphasized that he is not opposed to offering “Jewish education or Holocaust education in the schools.” Sala Udin of District 3 abstained from the vote, echoing Carter’s comments.
Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, was puzzled by Kaleida’s reasoning regarding her objections to the trip.
“The notion that a trip to Poland to enhance the quality of Holocaust education in Pittsburgh Public Schools somehow discriminates against the Palestinian people is incomprehensible at best,” Sayles wrote in an email. “Holocaust education is frequently used as a launching point to educate about all forms of genocide, intolerance and bigotry.
“What’s more, the insinuation that in order to most effectively teach about slavery we must allocate resources away from Holocaust education, or vice versa, is disturbing, as teaching about these two very important histories are not and should never be mutually exclusive,” he added. “Perhaps what is most disturbing is that these counterproductive ideas about education are being spewed by an elected member of Pittsburgh’s Board of Education.”
For Melissa Haviv, CWB’s assistant director, studying the Holocaust has relevance beyond the Jewish community and extends to all of humankind.
“The study of the Holocaust is a world issue,” Haviv said. “The study of the Holocaust promotes tolerance and combats bigotry from all sides. The more support we have from the leadership of the school district, the more impact we can make on the entire district — students and teachers.” PJC
In a previous version of this article, a statistic from a study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against the Germany was reported incorrectly. The study found that more than one fifth of millennials (22%) have not heard of, or are not sure if they have heard of, the Holocaust. The Chronicle incorrectly reported that “Less than one-fifth of millennials in the United States have heard of, or are not sure if they have heard of, the Holocaust.” The Chronicle regrets the error.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.