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New Milford teacher Colleen Tambuscio shares lessons of the Holocaust

Why would a gentile public school teacher lecture Israeli high school students about the Holocaust?

New Milford High School history and special education teacher Colleen Tambuscio’s goal was to widen the Israeli students’ appreciation of the Holocaust as a genocide. “I knew the universal lessons would be new to them,” she said.

The Holocaust studies curriculum Tambuscio initiated at Midland Park High School 15 years ago, and at New Milford nine years ago, came to the attention of the director of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Partnership 2000 (P2K) program with Nahariya. Over the past decade, 13 Nahariya schools have been “twinned” with 22 North Jersey congregational and day schools for a variety of collaborative programming. But never before had a public school joined the project.

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From left are Colleen Tambuscio with Erin Novak and Meredith McCann, New Milford High School students who have traveled with her to Holocaust sites. They spoke at UJA-NNJ’s meeting Monday night of the P2K executive board. Courtesy UJA-NNJ

“We’d heard that other P2Ks have public school connections and it’s the only way to reach Jewish students who don’t attend Jewish schools,” said Mercedes Hadad, P2K educational coordinator in Nahariya. “We knew how complicated it could be because of the separation of church and state, but a topic that is common to both of us is Holocaust studies and it’s compulsory in New Jersey.”

Tambuscio gave three PowerPoint presentations at the Nahariya public high school on Nov. 1. She included clips of a documentary about her classes’ annual Holocaust Study Tour to Poland, emphasizing that the vast majority of her students are not Jewish and even include Palestinians. “They were amazed at the backgrounds of our students studying the Holocaust,” Tambuscio said.

The concept of traveling to authentic historical sites to study the Holocaust is familiar to Israeli students, she continued. However, when she began to discuss other genocides and the warning signs of genocide, the kids were on unfamiliar territory. Some had heard of the Armenian genocide, but not Rwanda, Cambodia, or Darfur. Most weren’t aware that hundreds of Sudanese refugees are harbored in Israel.

“I told them about Holocaust survivors in America speaking side by side with Rwandan survivors,” Tambuscio wrote in her blog, “and they couldn’t conceptualize that idea.”

To Tambuscio, who has a master’s degree in Jewish-Christian studies from Seton Hall University and is an educational consultant to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, the Shoah is “the greatest example of a human rights atrocity that so many people ignored. It’s important to teach our students to be on guard to world genocide, to teach them the warning signs and how to be an active citizen in a democracy.”

“It was a very exciting experience, and there were a lot of questions,” reported Hadad. “Colleen’s visit was just the opening of the project. We’ll make a book of student essays and we will exchange the essays with her students. We are also planning a video conference for the two groups to talk about what they’ve learned.” Communication should not be a problem, as the Israeli teens speak English well.

Hadad leads an annual delegation of educators to North Jersey. This month, she is bringing along a group of principals and the mayor’s assistant for educational affairs. “The aim of our visit is deepening and strengthening the educational connections between our schools,” she said. “We are each going to teach a lesson in some of our ‘twin’ schools.” In Tambuscio’s class, the guest lecture will be “Israel as a Democracy.”

In May, 12 Nahariya students are expected in North Jersey, and Tambuscio hopes to take them with members of her own class to a new exhibition on world genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, where she is a fellow.

“Our school administrators were very excited about this collaboration,” she said. “They are very proud of our Holocaust education course. In a school that has a very small Jewish population, it’s about teaching important lessons for humanity, and it broadens our students’ horizons.”

Tambuscio reflected that the Nahariya students are very much like her own: “bright, passionate, enlightened, and most of all willing to delve deeper into issues that matter. When we had conversations across cultural lines, I felt I was talking to my students, and religion wasn’t going to be a barrier to our conversation.”

She supports the idea of getting other North Jersey public school teachers involved in P2K, an idea she discussed at a Nov. 29 meeting of the P2K executive board.

 
 

Israeli visitor boosts P2K partnership

Raya Strauss lauds program that connects communities

Raya Strauss is a born and bred Israeli, but says she did not feel fully Jewish until she forged close friendships with diaspora Jews through the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program linking Israeli and American communities.

Today, as international P2K co-chair and Israeli director of the P2K partnership between her hometown of Nahariya and the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, she champions the program as a Jewish lifesaver.

“When a delegation came to me from North Jersey seven or eight years ago and asked me to lead P2K, I didn’t want to be part of it because I didn’t understand it,” she told The Jewish Standard following a March 30 presentation to UJA-NNJ.

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Raya Strauss builds bridges between UJA-NNJ and its sister city in Israel. courtesy raya strauss

“It’s so sad now to admit I was an ignorant Israeli. I never went to synagogue and I never thought about how Jews live, about what they do,” said Strauss. “So I agreed to host visitors, but not to co-chair the project. Now, I am totally involved and totally in love. I felt I found my family.”

At the federation’s Paramus offices, she talked about how P2K fits into the Jewish Agency’s new strategic plan and the federation’s own strategic plan, which has targeted Jewish identity-building as one of its core priorities for the next four to five years.

“The plan is about reconnecting the young people we are losing in America, and also those in Israel, because most young Israelis are secular and are traveling the world without any awareness of their Jewishness,” said Strauss.

“Once they meet American Jews at [P2K] programs, they say, ‘We went as Israelis and came back as Jews.’ And Americans who participate come out feeling connected to Israel at a time when that is not so easy.”

The goal is to broaden existing partnerships, which now encompass 550 diaspora communities with 46 in Israel through school twinning, professional exchange programs, and other opportunities for personal engagement. “There are endless possibilities to fulfill our common need for strengthening Jewish identity,” she said.

“Every school in Nahariya is connected with a day school or supplementary school in North Jersey,” said Stuart Levy, UJA-NNJ community shaliach. “We have participation from 11 out of the 14 day schools, and 11 of the 12 supplemental schools.”

For the fifth year in a row, select 17-year-old Israelis from Nahariya will work as counselors in North Jersey Jewish day camps, this summer at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and at Camp Veritans in Passaic County. A choir from Nahariya’s Amal High School will perform in honor of Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day this May at several North Jersey venues.

A new facet of the project is to bring local Birthright Israel participants to the sister city in Israel’s north.

“UJA’s Center for Israel Engagement is arranging for two Birthright groups from North Jersey to go to Nahariya in May and June,” said Levy. “They will do projects there that will enable them to feel ownership in Israel, something lasting they created with Israelis.”

Strauss sees this as an important investment in the Jewish future. “I’m looking to do much more to touch the participants in Birthright and prepare them much better for university,” she said.

Ted Greenwood, local chair of UJA-NNJ P2K, said the highlight of the program has been “the extent to which we’ve managed to connect individuals and schools in northern New Jersey and Nahariya, at family, professional, and organizational levels.”

He cited a medical exchange program for first responders held at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, which has an underground emergency department, and a legal exchange program involving a group of Bergen County prosecutors and their Israeli counterparts.

“All of this is for [their] mutual benefit,” said Greenwood. “One of the pillars of our new strategic plan is strengthening Jews in North Jersey through contact with Israelis, and P2K is at the center of that. We’ll work on adding other ways to connect young people in Israel, here, and maybe even in other parts of the world. We’ll also work on connecting synagogues in our community with synagogues in Nahariya.”

 
 
 
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