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Op-ed: Supporting Kentucky teachers in Holocaust education

Janice W. Fernheimer, Karen Petrone, and Jeff Polson | UKNow

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 22, 2024) — The following op-ed was written by Janice W. Fernheimer, Karen Petrone and Jeff Polson. The opinions expressed are their own, not those of the University of Kentucky.

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Antisemitism has been on the rise in Kentucky and across the U.S. since 2016, including a 36% increase nationally in antisemitic incidents from 2021 to 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). We are appreciative that Governor Andy Beshear has taken this trend seriously by establishing the Kentucky Antisemitism Task Force.

Furthermore, we commend the foresight and wisdom of the Kentucky General Assembly for passing the Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act in 2018. This act mandates Holocaust and genocide education for all Kentucky middle and high school students, putting Kentucky at the forefront of Holocaust education in the U.S. as one of the earliest of the now more than 23 states that require it.

Educating students about the Holocaust is complex in terms of how it is taught, the context in which that teaching takes place, and, of course, the emotional toll it can have on all those involved.

While the mandate was an excellent first step in demonstrating Kentucky’s commitment to Holocaust education, a gap remains between this requirement and teachers’ preparation and confidence in their expertise to implement it.

To address this gap, the University of Kentucky, with support from the Jewish Heritage Fund (JHF), established the University of Kentucky-Jewish Heritage Fund Holocaust Education Initiative (UK-JHF HEI) in 2021. Thanks to nearly $1.2 million in grants from JHF, this initiative aims to ensure Kentucky educators have the necessary support and resources to be effective in their classrooms when implementing this vital work.

Our initiative, led by faculty in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, the UK College of Education, the UK Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, and Fayette County Public Schools, is unique in its collaborative approach, bridging divides between campus and broader communities, across disciplines, and among Jewish and non-Jewish communities to create wider networks of individuals familiar with Jewish ideas, culture and history. The result is an improved ability to recognize and intervene in everyday acts of antisemitism. 

Using a “teachers-teaching-teachers” model to empower educators to teach about the Holocaust with empathy, our initiative has worked with two cohorts totaling 41 teacher leaders selected from a competitive pool representing 20 counties from Pikeville to Paducah.

These teacher leaders undergo extensive training over the summer and across the academic year to prepare them to conduct workshops for other Kentucky educators, leading 13 workshops across the state that 171 teachers attended in 2023 alone. We are also committed to ensuring that Holocaust education is not the only opportunity for Kentucky students to learn about Jewish people, history, heritage and culture.

This collaborative model creates two essential aspects of Holocaust education — a network of highly trained educators equipped to be leaders within their geographic region and exemplary teaching materials mapped to state standards, accessible on our website, and tied to Kentucky-specific examples.

But don’t take it from us. In the words of one of our teacher leaders:

“[The initiative] gave me an avenue to become a better teacher than I was in previous years. And I think it’s a lot about when you talk about acknowledging the humanity of historical actors, like the people who were victims and survivors of the Holocaust. It also makes you contemplate the humanity of the people who are around you. And I feel like I had a more successful year with all my students because of the lessons that both they were learning and both I learned from the program.”

More than simply providing a “how-to,” our initiative empowers teachers to embrace complexity, delve into nuance, and create networks with other teachers both in their specific initiative cohort and, perhaps more importantly, in their local schools, districts and regions. 

Together, we face this difficult task of creating teaching materials that require us to acknowledge the repeated failures of communities to recognize the humanity of others, in the Holocaust and other genocides. We seek to broaden the limits of empathy to counter this difficult problem of both the past and present. This educational effort works toward creating the Kentucky that we all want to be part of, and this positive educational effort deserves additional public and private support.

To learn more, or if you are an educator interested in participating in one of our spring workshops or 2024-25 cohort of teacher leaders, please visit https://holocausteducation.uky.edu/.

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Janice W. Fernheimer, Ph.D., is co-director of the University of Kentucky-Jewish Heritage Fund Holocaust Education Initiative, Zantker Professor of Jewish Studies, and professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at UK.

Karen Petrone, Ph.D., is co-director of the UK-Jewish Heritage Fund Holocaust Education Initiative and professor of history at UK.

Jeff Polson is the president and CEO of the Jewish Heritage Fund, a grantmaking organization focused on improving adolescent health outcomes, strengthening Louisville’s distinction as a center for leading-edge medical research and fostering a robust and dynamic Jewish community.