When faced with what seemed like unending snow days in the winter of 2019, I decided to take advantage of an invitation that always spoke to me – applying for the TOLI summer seminar in New York City. Because I love Holocaust literature and exploring big cities, this seminar seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one for the bucket list. TOLI stands for The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights. The application process required me to speak about my teaching while making connections to the Holocaust and social justice issues I address in my classroom. I doubted myself because I am not a teacher who has a unit on the Holocaust or felt like I placed a lot of emphasis on genocide and social justice as a seventh-grade teacher.
Or so I thought.
What I learned is that much of what I do each day reinforces social justice and empathy, and while I didn’t do a formal study of the Holocaust, I did have something to offer this seminar and its participants. What resulted was indeed a trip of a lifetime, creating friendships with some of the most beautiful people I have ever known.
On our first night, I met several people in the lobby of our Columbia University dorm along with one of the seminar directors, Alice, who distributed maps to New York City public transportation and umbrellas if we didn’t have one. My dreams of this trip had me leaving the dorm early each morning to stroll through sunny Central Park to take in the sights and sounds of New York City. Unfortunately, what happened was seven straight days of rain – a soaking rain that could not be denied. In hindsight, it was appropriate weather for the heavy, difficult material we were tackling. On the first night, we didn’t let the rain get us down and instead headed from Columbia University by bus and subway train to a neighborhood we have all seen in the movies and on TV, Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Nestled in a block between Park and Madison Avenues with amazing apartments complete with opulently dressed doormen, is a lovely home with three floors that once belonged to Holocaust survivor, Olga Lengyl. I knew we were all in for something amazing when we were greeted at the base of the stairs with a sign that read, “We love our teachers, Welcome.” I got a little choked up reading it. The TOLI people, some educators, and some not, already appreciated me for the work I do. At that moment, my core belief was validated: Kindness matters; it really does. Their kindness and powerful words in a simple sign taped to the wall led me through twelve days of the most profound learning of my lifetime. Continue reading