Bearing Witness Program Stirs Powerful Emotions
Published: August 16, 2007
ATLANTA—Powerful, amazing and troubling: that’s the overall response of the 35 Catholic educators from the Archdiocese of Atlanta and dioceses of Savannah and Louisville, Ky., who participated in the first “Bearing Witness” ™ program in the Southeast held at St. Pius X High School.
Created in 1996 by the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, D.C., as a tool for Catholic educators to learn how to teach about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and its lasting effects on contemporary society, this was the first time the program was presented in Atlanta, thanks to cooperation from Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the Office of Catholic Schools, and Southeast Anti-Defamation League office.
During the course of three days, educators were immersed in the history of anti-Semitism over 2,000 years—both outside and inside the Catholic Church. But they also explored many of the similarities and parallels between the Catholic and Jewish faiths, through Scripture readings and talks by priests, rabbis, and Catholic theologians.
Participants also learned how the Catholic response to Jews evolved from persecution in the Middle Ages, through the 20th century, to the contemporary relationship with Israel. Students read statements condemning anti-Judaism and affirming the connection of the church’s Jewish roots by Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI.
In between the intensive history lessons, the teachers had time to discuss common stereotypes and their roots with rabbis and Jewish educators and build rapport with each other through icebreaking games. There was also a lot of eye-opening myth-shattering between the two faith groups.
And that was just the first day.
“This (program) is not for us to feel guilty,” said Rabbi Steve Chervin, director of the Goodman Institute of Jewish Learning at Ahavath Achim Synagogue in Atlanta, and one of the main presenters of the course.
“The fact is, many horrible things have happened with Jewish-Christian relations; we cannot change anything in the past,” he said. “What we can do—what we should do, is to learn and become educated and use the information and tools to recognize how those same things can happen around us. Without history, we can misread or not notice many of the things that are still happening today.”
For Brenda Chee Wah, a religion teacher at St. Peter Claver Regional School in Decatur, the program energized and reinforced her in teaching social justice and helping her students actively live their faith.
“My outlook has always been global, and my philosophy is that we live our faith, and as a Catholic, you should pursue social justice all your life,” she said. From this course “I’m looking for what we historically have inherited from the Jewish people, from the time of Moses. And from the Catholic social justice issue, I see that the horrors of what happened during World War II have not stopped—from child prostitution, to the wars of Eastern Europe, to those decimated by AIDS.”
On the second day, participants talked with Holocaust survivors during a dinner held at The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest Jewish Reform synagogue. On the third day, they toured the Holocaust exhibit at the William Breman Museum with relatives of Holocaust survivors.
Some of the program’s stated goals were to present “frank and unflinching discussions of topics such as anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, the role of the church during the Holocaust, and contemporary manifestations of hatred.” But there were also talks to show how the two faiths have been linked to the same “family tree” planted by Abraham thousands of years ago.
Dennis Ruggiero, a St. Pius X High School religion teacher and an alumnus both of Bearing Witness and its advanced seminar, has a deep appreciation for the connection between Catholics and Jews. He helped organize the event at St. Pius.
“One of the most important things for a New Testament teacher is to express the person of Jesus and his life in a Jewish context, not to Americanize him. Jesus was not a Democrat or a Republican, he was a Jew in the deepest meaning of what it was to be a Jew in first century Palestine.”
Ruggiero co-developed a curriculum for a Holocaust class for seniors several years ago, following a Bearing Witness program; in 2005 he was named a Georgia Distinguished Educator of the Year, an award for teachers in studies of the Holocaust, character education and diversity.
For many of the teachers and administrators at the program, the discussions brought to the forefront critical social justice and tolerance issues to bring back to their students, as well as a fuller understanding of the Jewish context of Jesus. In addition to middle school and high school religion teachers, those attending represented disciplines from art to computers, from English to drama to social studies.
Frederick Whittaker, a Catholic middle school history teacher at St. Francis of Assisi School, traveled from Louisville to participate in the course.
“I needed to experience this,” he said. “I have been teaching Holocaust studies for the past six years. I want to add more spirituality into it, and push the kids toward more compassion.”
For Brendan Murphy, a Marist School history teacher in Atlanta, this was the second time he took the course; the first time was in Washington, D.C. Murphy developed a 12-week Holocaust seminar for sophomores, but he still wanted another chance to experience the program.
“I’m a product of Catholic education, K-12, with a degree from Notre Dame and graduate degree from Spring Hill College—and nowhere in any of the courses I took was anything of this taught,” he said. “This fills a gap that I’ve not seen done before. I think, for my students and for myself, the Holocaust represents an enormous challenge to modern Christianity. It’s an enormous tragedy on the part of our faith, but it also can help students today look at the quality of their faith, and how meaningful it is, and how much they can put that faith into practice. One should leave a seminar on the Holocaust wanting to be a better Catholic.”
Stacy Glavin, an eighth-grade religion and social studies middle school teacher at St. Thomas More School in Decatur, had a similar impression of the course.
“I came into this program thinking this would be a good background piece for teaching World War II and the Holocaust in the classroom in a meaningful way,” said Glavin. “I left with a wealth of information that we had never even considered—and a better awareness of the Catholic faith and the Jewish faith.”
Terry Collis, the new principal at St. Thomas More School, had taught Holocaust education for years to eighth-graders at the school. But when she heard about the course being offered through the archdiocese, she immediately signed on, despite juggling her new principal responsibilities.
“This was the most beneficial and powerful professional development course I ever have taken. From my perspective as a Catholic teacher, the religious aspect of the history of the church and Jewish-Catholic relationship was amazing and eye opening. It was very poignant and very powerful. I learned more about the Jewish religion; it made so much more sense to me and came together in such a better way,” she said.
Collis will be teaching an elective class on the subject to seventh- and eighth-graders during the 2007-2008 school year.
Other STM teachers who attended, including Glavin, Heather Kloer, the school’s computer teacher, eighth-grade literature teacher Patrick Reich, media specialist Laura Ayala and art teacher Cate Miller, are planning ways of incorporating the information from Bearing Witness into their respective curricula.
“We’re still processing all this information right now,” said Collis, who noted that it was still a lot to think about, “but we do know that we are going to refocus on the tolerance and Gospel message to talk about a world without hate.”
The three-day course involved talks by Paul Wieser, ADL director of the Braun Holocaust Institute and a lifelong Catholic; Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of education at the ADL in New York; and Father Dennis McManus, associate professor of theology at Georgetown University and former director of the Intercultural Forum at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., where he held the Smilow Chair in Catholic-Jewish relations. Sally Levine, a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy in Atlanta and a summer instructor at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, also led discussions at The Temple and at the Breman Museum. Levine was recently appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s regional educational corps and serves as one of 30 educators in the Southeast.
Holli Levinson, education director of the ADL Southeast region, helped coordinate the program, but this was the first time she saw it in action. Her most powerful moment was the joint reading of a passage in the Gospel of Mark (the healing of the woman with a hemorrhage) by Rabbi Bretton-Granatoor and Father McManus, she said.
“When Dennis and Gary did a joint reading of a passage in the New Testament, and Gary gave the Jewish perspective of what was happening, and Dennis gave the Christian perspective, I had never heard it that way,” she said. “I learned so much.”
Putting on programs such as Bearing Witness helps dialogue between the faiths, she said. “In this process, we all learn more about our own traditions by these conversations. We were able to talk about really meaningful issues, not just ‘let’s all get together and have dinner.’ I was really humbled.”
Since the regional Bearing Witness course began, more than 1,000 Catholic teachers from across the nation have gone through the program and its advanced course in Israel. Organizers hope to hold another Bearing Witness program next year.