Dovid Hofstedter: Anti-Semitism’s troubling rise proves need for better Holocaust education

Main railway building is pictured on the site of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, empty due to COVID-19 restrictions, two days before the 76th virtual anniversary of the liberation of the camp in Brzezinka near Oswiecim, Poland, January 25, 2021.

Shortly before COVID-19 arrived, global interest in the study of Torah — and in the history of the Holocaust — ran the highest I’ve ever seen. We celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and commemorated the closing of Nazi concentration camps that committed mass exterminations. So many aspiring new Jewish scholars stepped forward to steep themselves in our heritage that I briefly suspected the Moshiach, or messiah, might finally be coming.

But then the pandemic hit, killing that momentum. Aggravating matters exponentially, anti-Semitism surged nationally and globally as fast as any virus. Scrawled swastikas defaced synagogues. Jews came under random attack on public streets. The scourge of propaganda against the Jews reached an all-time high. Such outbreaks carry haunting echoes of fascist Germany — and for that matter of the United States — in the 1930s.

Against this bleak backdrop, then, and with a growing sense of urgency, I recently took my case to the corridors of Capitol Hill. There, as a Canadian citizen, I met privately with seven leaders in Congress to counter the increasingly virulent strain of hatred now targeting the Jewish community — and, in the process, to rally support for Torah study and Holocaust education.

For me these matters are profoundly personal. I grew up as a child of Holocaust survivors, and the same goes for my wife, with other survivors surrounding us. My parents and in-laws emigrated to Toronto after the Second World War orphaned and penniless, but unbroken. My father and father-in-law embarked on a lifelong mission to help the Jewish people and established mosdos, institutions for Torah education, in Canada and around the world.

Still, I saw how the state of Jewish learning had deteriorated since the Holocaust. If divine providence presents us with an opportunity to contribute to the greater good, especially given our tragic legacy as Jews, it’s our sacred responsibility to take advantage and act accordingly. The example my family set in fulfilling its religious duties inspired me more than 20 years ago to found Dirshu, now the world’s largest organization promoting Torah scholarship. Dirshu is apolitical, unaffiliated with any party or idealogy. Our central interest is in advancing Torah education.

The members of Congress I met last month, representing districts in Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia, understood that this issue crosses party lines and deserves to be recognized as independent from politics. To a person, they expressed outrage that the Holocaust, as a history lesson for all humanity to learn, could someday soon recede into irrelevance. They praised Torah education and freedom of religion. More pointedly, they promised to support efforts to educate the public about the atrocities of the Holocaust and more generally the evil threat of anti-Semitism.

In a letter to me soon after my visit last month, Representative Jefferson Van Drew of New Jersey wrote that he welcomed the opportunity “to address the very dangerous and frightening trend we have witnessed” and condemned “the spike in hate crimes against Jewish people across America and elsewhere across the globe.” He added that “perhaps at no time since the 1930s have we found ourselves in as precarious a situation when it comes to Jewish lives being threatened both domestically and on a global scale.”

Some members of Congress are currently drafting a joint letter condemning crimes against Jews and urging a tangible response. One representative is expected to deliver a speech along those lines on the house floor within the next few weeks.

The best answer to anti-Semitism is Holocaust education. Granted, Holocaust education at state and federal levels has drawn massive investment over the last three decades. Seventeen states have mandated Holocaust education since California became the first to do so in the mid-1980s. The Never Again Act, signed into law last year, provides federal funds to train teachers to educate youth about the subject.

But such efforts, however laudable, are nowhere near enough. The number of Holocaust survivors living among us is rapidly dwindling, depriving us of firsthand witnesses and testimony. Surveys have shown that nearly 50 per cent of millennials cannot name even one of Nazi Germany’s 40,000 concentration camps and more than 40 per cent are mistaken about the number of Hitler’s Jewish victims.

Current Holocaust education is largely flawed, too, only superficially tackling the topic and surrounding issues. Studies find that the average U.S. student studies the subject for only 90 minutes a year. Holocaust education in the U.S. is typically designed for students in the 8th grade. But they’re too young to confront, much less understand, industrialized mass murder and the bitter legacy of two millennia of Jew-hatred. Holocaust education will make a difference only if we can ensure that the subject is taught properly. What students should learn, perhaps above all, is that the anti-Semitism plaguing us today is directly connected to this uniquely monstrous campaign to erase an entire people from the face of the earth.

This much I know for sure: education is how we remember history, whether from the Torah or about the Holocaust. We owe that commitment to those who have died and those, like my parents, who survived.

Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter is the founder of Dirshu.

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