Jonathan Miller – JFS: Students must know how Jews died, and how they lived

Jonathan Miller – JFS: Students must know how Jews died, and how they lived

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Jonathan Miller, Headteacher, JFS

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Learning about the Holocaust is a vital part of our education. The students who began their secondary education last September may well be the first generation, sadly, not to have easy and frequent access to Holocaust survivors.

So, what kind of education is needed? We certainly do not want our young people to leave school with a Judaism based exclusively on the Holocaust; neither do we want to risk a student response of “Oh no, not the Holocaust again.”

At JFS, we have a whole-school strategy where the Holocaust features in topics students would be studying anyway. In year seven, students look at poems written by the Theriesenstadt children; in History, as well as the rise of the Nazis which A-level Historians study, we are planning a series of lessons for year nine students looking at some of the great pre-war Jewish communities which were destroyed, places like Warsaw and Budapest, because our students need to know not only about how the Jews died, but how they lived. And in Jewish studies at Key Stage 4, we look at the ethical, religious and moral issues surrounding the Holocaust.

Crucially, in all our work, we look at real people, real families. To borrow from Yad Vashem’s educational vision, we want to take the individuals out of the bodies. All these examples are supplemented by our annual Holocaust Seminar for year 10, and by visits from guest experts: academics, survivors, commentators. In year 12, our students have the opportunity to visit the killing fields of Poland.

On that visit, as well as going to the death camps, we celebrate life, visiting and learning in Chachmei Lublin yeshivat, which before the war was the Oxbridge of European yeshivot. Those students who have visited Poland bring their experiences back into school as they lead assemblies, display their photographs and artwork and initiate projects. Some years ago, our ‘Poland graduates’ ran a campaign to bring a new Sefer Torah to JFS, to demonstrate Jewish life continues to flourish despite the events of 70 years ago.

This year, those who have returned are spearheading our Yom Hashoah events. A significant part of what we do is also about how we reach out to others. On National Holocaust Memorial Day, students in years 10 and 12 will, as is our custom, host year 10 students from seven non-Jewish schools in Brent at a day-long Holocaust education seminar which will include discussions with survivors.

We also ensure our teachers participate in relevant training and we are grateful to, among others, Yad Vashem UK which has enabled several members of staff to spend a valuable week at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, benefiting from and contributing to the annual seminar for teachers from the UK and bringing that experience back to JFS. By the time our students leave JFS, we want them to have experienced some of the many aspects of this endlessly complex and painful subject.

We’re proud of what we’ve achieved so far but nothing is ever perfect and we can, and we will, improve. Who may resist such a challenge?

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