What do we do when schools fail our children?
July 26, 2019
Just recently, the South Florida Jewish community collectively took a very deep breath when Spanish River High School’s Principal William Latson weighed in on the school’s approach to State-mandated Holocaust education. I was in complete and total shock when I learned of what had transpired just a few miles from our NCSY office. Principal Latson said he had to remain “politically neutral” when choosing how to educate our children about the Holocaust. He also stated in the email, ““Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened and you have your thoughts but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs so they will react differently.” These disturbing events continue to be at the top of our radar as we wonder why the Holocaust is being reclassified as a belief and not fact. How did this one man find himself in the middle of one of the biggest challenges facing Jews today?
As the executive director of Southern NCSY, I find myself deeply invested in connecting our Jewish teens to their heritage and providing them the important leadership skills needed to exact positive change not only in their local communities, but also in the world. It’s a task that I’m both personally and professionally extremely devoted to. We teach them about Israel advocacy, help them professionally network, teach them Torah, provide them with social programs and charitable ones as well.
One of our programs, Jewish Student Union, operates in 60 high schools across South Florida—including Spanish River High School. At JSU, we seek to engage teens and strengthen their Jewish identity. Participation is always free and open to any teen, regardless of their Jewish background or denomination.
With the continued increase in anti-Semitism and the unfortunate growth of Holocaust denial, I’m forced to re-examine our outreach teen programming. I keep asking myself if we are doing enough. Perhaps a shift is in order? Maybe we need to arm our Jewish teens with the ability to deal with encounters with Holocaust deniers in their own schools? Is that what it’s come to? Along the same lines, are adults in need of education as well? Are middle-class, well-educated Boca Raton adults in need of a Holocaust literacy program of their own? Do school officials need to be taught how to handle those who incorrectly deny that portions of our world’s history never happened?
Today we are both burdened and blessed with instant news, breaking news, social networks, text messages, group messages and even fake news. Information is at your fingertips 24/7/365. Some people receive information and are quick to draw often unmoving and irrational conclusions. There are people that bend over backwards not to offend while others speak their mind inappropriately in these forums and can incite a riot with just a few words.
This brings me back to former Principal Latson. Whether or not he either personally or professionally holds the opinion that the Holocaust never happened, the situation should serve as a wake-up call. A wake-up call to the Jewish people and to the agencies around the world that are tasked with educating our children. Southern NCSY plans to lend a hand in making sure the students, parents and school officials at Spanish River High School (and other schools in South Florida) have not only a clear picture of the tragic history of the Jewish people, but are also armed with the confidence to stand behind Holocaust programming. For it’s through education that we can both preserve our history and ensure that it never happens again.
Todd Cohn is executive director of Southern NCSY, a premier organization dedicated to connect, inspire and empower Jewish teens and encourage passionate Judaism through Torah and Tradition. Southern NCSY used to stand for National Conference of Synagogue Youth. But now they work with affiliated and non-affiliated Jewish teens, reach teens in public and private schools and through independent programming, so the acronym doesn’t stand for that anymore. Southern NCSY serves teens in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas.