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Fellows in Focus – November 2022

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Fellows in Focus

Patricia Skelton

Where are you from?
Opelika, Alabama

Where do you teach and what subject do you teach?
I teach Sixth-grade American History, and a unit on WWII and the Holocaust at Opelika Middle School

How did you get involved with the JFR?
When I moved up to teach sixth-grade 10 years ago, I realized I was desperately in need of training in the Holocaust. My coworker, Kate Gholston, introduced me to the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center (now the Alabama Holocaust Education Center.) After attending several programs with them and the USHMM, I was introduced to the JFR.

What was the most compelling thing you learned as an Alfred Lerner Fellow?
One of the things that drew me to the JFR was its focus on upstanders. To be able to learn about the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to help others was something very important to me.

What is your favorite memory from your participation in JFR programming?
It is hard to pick my favorite memory while being involved with the JFR, but I can narrow it down to two things:

The first was meeting Roman Kent, a Holocaust survivor. He said two things that stuck with me and that I use in my classroom and life every day: “Never be a bystander” and “Hate is never right and love is never wrong.”

The second was the 2018 European Study Program to Germany and the Netherlands. For the most part, the buildings at the camps are gone. However, the sites are not empty. There is a presence of those who have passed. Emotionally it leaves you sad and hurting for the six million Jewish people who lost their lives and for all the survivors who endured so much for so long. I wanted to obtain personal and professional growth and to further my commitment to help guide my students through the difficult context in age-appropriate means that will help them become more empathetic human beings.

How do you feel the Lerner fellowship has impacted your life, both personally and professionally?
Personally – the friendships that I have made while participating in the JFR programming are connections that have tremendous value.

Professionally – the Summer Institute for Teachers, Advanced Seminar, and European Study Program have made a tremendous impact on my classroom. The materials we received prior to each program were phenomenal.  This knowledge has helped me create stronger and more insightful lessons for my students and has given my students and me a stronger foundation while becoming truly empathetic to the people impacted.

Stephen Bretz

Where are you from?
Clovis, CA

Where do you teach and what subject do you teach?
I teach seventh & eighth-grade social studies at St. John School in Seattle. In eighth grade, the students have a month-long unit on the Holocaust. We coordinate with the Seattle Holocaust Center for Humanity on materials and a classroom guest speaker. We visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. in May.

How did you get involved with the JFR?
I was asked by the Seattle Holocaust Center for Humanity if I would be interested in attending a JFR teacher seminar at Columbia University.

What drew you to the organization and its programming?
I was intrigued by the focus of the JFR on telling the stories and supporting those that help rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The mission of the organization is so genuine in showing gratitude to those that risked their lives for others. It was an aspect of the Holocaust that I wasn’t familiar with at the time. Once I started learning more about what the JFR embodied and watching the reunions, I absolutely wanted to go learn from this organization. I feel fortunate to have learned from the JFR’s work.

What was the most compelling thing you learned as an Alfred Lerner Fellow?
There were two compelling aspects that stand out to me.

The first was how truly evil Hitler and the Nazi regime were. Going in I was already aware of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. However, the depth of evil I didn’t fully comprehend before. I went to one lecture about the different chemicals used, the killing devices designed, and the overall sickening intentionality by so many to kill and dehumanize Jewish people. It really drove home how far people had gone to justify what was going on and participate in it at a systematic level. It was very hard to learn about but also important. It was extremely eye-opening as well how many major companies also worked with the Nazis to further their cause. I wasn’t expecting to be more shocked and horrified than before attending the course.

The second, was meeting and talking with survivors. This wasn’t the first time, but every opportunity is a blessing. The ability for survivors to spread hope in humanity despite their tragic experiences is incredible every time. This provided balance to my experience at the JFR seminar at Columbia. Learning about rescue, courage, and survival in the midst of darkness helped me appreciate even more the stories of the survivors and reunion stories. Being in the presence of each survivor always brings about a sense of gratitude for what we have, hope that there were those that did what was right risking their lives too, and inspiration to make the world around me a better place one interaction at a time.

What is your favorite memory from your participation in JFR programming?.

One evening we got to listen to Mr. Roman Kent’s incredible story of survival and his work to share his story to stop hatred. (I believe he was the Vice President or President of the JFR at the time.) Meeting him was an incredible honor and such a beautiful moment to listen to a man with such love, compassion, and purpose. He shared with us his book, “My Dog Lala”. I was fortunate to be able to talk with him for a few moments afterward. He asked me questions and wanted to know about my family. At the time, in 2012, I had a one-year-old son. We talked about family and children for a few more minutes. He then grabbed a book and signed it for my son, Levi.

How do you feel the Lerner fellowship has impacted your life, both personally and professionally?
It inspired me to make sure to bring a full-curricular unit about the Holocaust to my students. To share the message of what happened but also the story of rescue so students know that people, or them, can do the right thing no matter the circumstance. You can make a difference in someone’s life. Sitting back is not an option sometimes.

Anything else you’d like to share with the JFR’s followers and supporters?
Thank you to all the people that are dedicated to sharing stories that teach and inspire.

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