Meeting the Challenge
Ruth Bergman heads HMC’s educational efforts to reach more students and teachers.
Keri Guten Cohen Story Development Editor
For the first time in its 36-year history, the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills has a full-time director of education.
Ruth Bergman, a well-respected local educator and daughter of Holocaust survivors, came on board June 18 and has been building upon educational changes started two years ago when Gov. Rick Synder approved Public Act 170, which requires a total of six hours of instruction about genocide, including the Holocaust and Armenian genocide, for every Michigan public school student in grades 8-12.
The state’s educational requirement dovetails perfectly with the HMC’s succinct mission: to engage, educate and empower by remembering the Holocaust. It also means that school tours to the HMC will increase and that thousands of social studies or history teachers statewide will need to be trained to teach Holocaust and genocide units to their students.
“We want to be seen as the nexus of PA 170,” said Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld, HMC executive director. “We are trying to partner with educators and we want this to be ongoing relations.”
Consultant Robin Axelrod of Ann Arbor was hired five years ago when the HMC received one of the saplings from the original Anne Frank tree. After that “year of Anne Frank,” she stayed on as part-time director of education tasked with building an education department, which has grown to 10 full- and part-time employees.
When PA 170 was approved, the team worked on meeting this challenge by examining how tours are conducted and by developing training for teachers and docents.
“A full-fledged department needs somebody full time, so the position was posted, with lofty goals,” said Axelrod, who still works part-time and has happily shifted her focus to training teachers throughout the state. “We wanted a superstar and people applied from all over the world.”
Mayerfeld said, “We were lucky to find someone in our own backyard. Ruth was able to hit the ground running. On day one, she was able to make significant contributions.”
Bergman has been a longtime teacher for Detroit’s Melton School of Adult Learning. Recently, she’s been working with the international Melton organization, mentoring teachers and some Melton directors. She is married to Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Adat Shalom Synagogue; they have four daughters.
“It’s very exciting to be here,” Bergman said. “I was doing important things before by teaching, but this is different; this is impacting people in the community in a different way, in a broader way. I think it’s a natural next step for me professionally. It’s really meaningful and that’s really a gift.”
Axelrod, who built the foundation for the current education department, capped the leadership transition by securing a spot for Bergman at the Yad Vashem educators conference in Israel this June, just three days after she officially started her job.
“It was important that Ruth be there because they already know me,” Axelrod said. “I wanted to introduce Ruth. They should know she’s the director of education. We have this really strong and, I think, unprecedented relationship with Yad Vashem, the Anti-Defamation League and the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation, and this partnership provides our teaching model.”
Though Bergman hasn’t managed a department before, she is tapping into her strong organizations skills and some educational administration classes she took long ago at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“Much of my consulting and professional coaching work involves developing leaders, professional and lay leaders, and I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Axelrod said. “I can say with 100 percent confidence that Ruth is the fastest study. Her skills are right there.”
After PA 170 went into effect, HMC staff aimed to become the primary educational resource for training teachers to teach about the Holocaust and genocide.
They knew they couldn’t bring all the state’s social studies and history teachers to the HMC, so they investigated Skyping and other social media.
“When Robin and Tim Constant [manager of education research] were figuring out how we were going to reach these teachers … it’s
that personal connection that’s the game changer,” Bergman said.
“When they go to the U.P. and they do a face-to-face training session, and they meet people and connect with them, we’ve created a bond for life. They know they can contact us if they have questions or if they want to go deeper in their Holocaust education.”
Axelrod recalled a time she and a colleague flew in a small plane to Marquette in a fierce storm to do a training. They were diverted to Escanaba and then took the one taxi to Marquette.
“One teacher said, ‘I can’t believe you came here at all, plus the fact you’re here in this storm,’” Axelrod said. “Then she said, ‘Thank you for knowing we need you.’
“How important is it to teach the Holocaust to a community of people who have absolutely no personal relationship to it? It’s a human story and it all goes back to one person. There were 6 million Jews murdered, but we have to turn it around and help students and all our visitors understand that it was one person, one name, one face, one life 6 million different times. And that’s only the Jewish loss.”
Gina DeSimone teaches U.S. history and honors English at Bendle High School near Flint. She has been interested in the Holocaust since her early 20s and attends trainings offered at the HMC. Early on at Bendle, she wrote a grant for $1,500 so she could take her students to the Holocaust center.
“The institution of learning is the HMC — they have supported me, and they have my back,” she said. “Robin came to Genesee County in August to do a training that was very well attended. These seminars are so enriching; I always learn a different way to deliver the message to reach students.
“I think there needs to be a law like this. It’s important because students can learn empathy. It’s not all about the dark part of the Holocaust, but the journey of going through a horrible experience and having a life at the end that you can celebrate. There are lots of lessons to learn.”
“We have to think about things differently. It will be the same core values, but the way we get them across will change.”
— Ruth Bergman
Constant, who started in January, arranges teacher trainings around the state. A former principal at Crescent Academy and Hamtramck High School, he has the contacts and understands the challenges teachers face. He, too, has a passion for Holocaust education and says he always took his students to the HMC.
He, Axelrod and colleagues Aliza Tick, Dunreith Kelly Lowenstein and John Farris conduct the one-day trainings, which last about six hours and attract between 15 and 25 teachers each session.
When Mayerfeld suggested a goal of training 1,000 teachers, Constant initially thought the CEO meant in one year, not three, as he intended.
“Since April 27, we’ve made great progress in a short time,” Constant said. “We are ahead of schedule; we’re now on track to teach 500 teachers by the end of this year.
“Many districts are not very diverse, and lots of teachers are very excited to use this knowledge and curriculum to educate their students about more diverse beliefs.”
Training has gone so well that the team now is offering Level 2 training for teachers who want to go deeper into the material. The first session was held Oct. 25 at the HMC. Staff members also are excited about creating an online community of Holocaust educators across the state.
For years, docent-led tours at the Holocaust Memorial Center, whether for students or regular visitors, have been based on a script and a format. Docents, who must prove they have mastered the material before leading tours, moved their groups chronologically through the museum and end with a talk by a local Holocaust survivor. Annually, that means 65,000 individuals.
Much of the training had been driven by a docent advisory committee. But with the approval of PA 170 and the increase in student tours, changes have come for the HMC’s stable of 70 docents.
“These professional volunteers are so talented and so completely necessary to our existence,” said Sarah Saltzman, HMC director of events. “We’re asking them to make a very hard transition, but I believe the docents will be very happy with the tour changes and really personally engaged and on board.”
New training emphasizes tours that are thematic and highly interactive, with docents asking open-ended questions to expand the personal experiences of visitors. And, by following themes, tours can start anywhere in the museum by threading the theme from gallery to gallery. For example, two groups now can share one survivor’s talk — one at the end of their tour, the other at the beginning.
“We have to remember Holocaust education has evolved … and really focus on the best practices,” Bergman said. “So, there are always going to be changes happening here.
“We have to think about things differently. It will be the same core values — those don’t change — but the way we get them across will change. How do we make that impact? That’s part of our continual growth.”
Axelrod added, “We are adamant about our visitors not being passive recipients of information. It’s only an experience if they are involved. Being theme-based encourages people to think, and that’s central to what we’re here for. We want to develop critical thinkers who make ethical decisions and then act on them.”
Docent Michael Leibson, 70, of Southfield, says the transition is still in progress; but, like most docents interviewed, his tour already is interactive.
“For me, it was not so much a problem,” he said. “How you adjust has to do with how interactive you were to begin with, and mine is increasingly so. Each docent brings his or her own experiences, background and personal stories.
“Additional training was more about technique than content. How in 90 minutes do you make an impact? If you view it as something with contemporary usage, you can have them walk out with the idea they have choices and those choices make a difference.”
Abbe Sherbin of West Bloomfield has been a docent for two years.
“As a newer docent, I think change is good. Improvement should be a priority and a goal,” she said.
“The training we are getting now certainly has a goal to encourage people to ask questions and share thoughts about what they are learning. I don’t know what people know unless they ask questions,” she said. “It’s incumbent on me to be well-versed to address those questions and thoughts.”
Other changes include adding a tour a day (sometimes eight tours daily with up to 30 people each), keeping the HMC open on Monday nights, using a new tour booking system to better manage tours, customizing tours for special interest groups, getting more information from teachers about what they want their students to walk away with and matching docents to best fit each group.
“We are at the beginning of something really exciting and impactful,” Saltzman said. “We continue to move forward because we are so clear on what our goals are, and we have all bought into that as a team. When we talk about our mission — engaging, educating and empowering — we mean it and we’re doing it.”
Support the Detroit Jewish News Foundation
Support the educational mission of the independent, nonprofit Detroit Jewish News Foundation.