At the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, there is a newly planted tree. It was grown from a cutting of the tree that stood in front the of the house where Anne Frank wrote her famous diary. The magic of that tree is that, looking at it, one might imagine what it was like to be Anne Frank, secreted away from the Nazis in a hidden room in Amsterdam. It is also a tree that gives many people hope and strength. Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) Director of education Robin Axelrod shared that when she has a bad day, she comes to the tree, her favorite place in the museum, and it reminders her that her bad day is nothing compared to what Anne and her family faced.
This year our Religious Diversity Journeys wrapped up with a visit to the HMC, where 150 7th graders from 10 schools in 4 districts, as well as their teachers and parents, had a chance to put themselves in Frank’s shoes, to imagine being discriminated against, persecuted, dehumanized, and facing death, just for being different.
Survivor Edith Maniker doesn’t have to imagine. She was there. And, as she shared her story with the group, the room was silent. At the age of 8, her mother and father placed her and her sister on a train full of children bound for England, where she was taken in and raised by strangers. She never saw her parents again. Knowing they would never see their daughters again, they told her she was going on vacation with her sister for 2 weeks and they would see her soon. It was the only time she had ever seen her father cry.
These children are the last generation that will hear these stories from people who lived them. And according to RDJ Program Director Meredith Skowronski, they understood that. “It was pin-drop silent for 45 minutes. Many of the kids were videotaping her,” says Skowronski.
“It can be hard to present that subject matter in that short a time to seventh graders” said Orchard Lake Middle School teacher, Jennifer Sepetys. “I thought they did a phenomenal job.”
“They were making connections to bullying and bringing things up in a way that they could connect it to a middle school experience,” said Sepetys. The lesson was “if you don’t stop it, this is an example of what can happen. That was how they bridged the age gap and brought it to the students on a level that they would understand.”
Emi Dittrich, a Berkshire 7th grader, didn’t have much to say in the car on the way home after the trip to the HMC said her mother Kathy Dittrich, but a few days later, she chided her sister for being judgmental about the mention of God in a story. She told her that she should “listen and not judge,” says Dittrich, who said that was something she never would have said before Religious Diversity Journeys.
The museum was designed to help visitors understand that the horror of the Holocaust began with prejudice against a group of people who were different, and can be prevented by making the effort to understand, accept, appreciate, and stand up for all of our neighbors.
In the wrap-up, one parent commented, “I felt that the summation session was the best I have seen. The memorial center provided the perfect setting to see first-hand why knowledge and understanding of others and open-mindedness is so crucial. Here, more than anywhere, we can see what can occur when it doesn’t happen.”
“The message the kids got is that one person can make a difference,” says Dittrich. “When you see people acting in hate or ignorance, you can step forward. Even though it’s a depressing topic, I think people left inspired to make the world a better place.”
The HMC event wrapped up a big year for RDJ, with 3 cohorts, the other two of which wrapped up their year at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “18 Journeys. 18 Meals. 18 new experiences,” said Skowronski. “It really takes an army to pull this off.”
One of the things Skowronski loves about the program is how hundreds of volunteers and clergy embrace the program and give of their time to make it happen.
Skowronski also enjoys the students’ experience, things like trying new foods, wrapping a head scarf, walking into a room full of deities at the Hindu temple. But the highlight of each year, she says, is hearing the students talk about how their perspectives have changed.
“That’s always my favorite part,” she says, “the last hour we share together talking about what we’ve learned.”
Next year, Religious Diversity Journeys will grow again, from 3 cohorts to 4, and several new houses of worship will join the effort to increase religious literacy and build understanding. These new locations include St. Mary’s Antiochan Orthodox Church in Livonia, Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield, Tawheed Center in Farmington Hills, and the Sterling Heights Gurdwara, which will join the long list of congregations that are working to open students’ eyes and send them back into their communities to become understanding, respectful, and loving neighbors.