Program connects Shoah survivors with bar and bar mitzvah children

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Periodically, Daniel Reich would hear the same request. Could he assist a local family with an effort to honor an area Holocaust survivor during an upcoming bar or bat mitzvah?

“Over the years, we had several successful connections made where a student met with a survivor,” said Reich, curator and director of education at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC). “In some cases, they literally invited the local survivor to their bar or bat mitzvah. It was very powerful.”

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Unfortunately, it was sporadic.

“It was always kind of scattershot,” he said. “It just happened when we got the call. There was no effort to promote a program like that.”

Enter the Heritage Project, a program being launched by the HMLC to connect bar and bat mitzvahs with those who have experienced the Holocaust firsthand. For a donation to the program, children who participate can meet with local survivors at special receptions, receive a certificate, information packet and photo of a local survivor or survivor’s deceased relative, and even play a role in the community Yom HaShoah event. They may also choose to publicly honor the survivor by incorporating his or her story into the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony through information included in the prayer book or other reading. In the process, participants also learn about present-day social justice issues, such as the genocide in Darfur.

The idea for the program originally comes from a similar project run by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The local version, funded by Marc Kutten in memory of his parents Elaine and Eugene Kutten, brings a St. Louis angle to the concept, said Jean Cavender, director of the local HMLC.

“One of the reasons that we decided to do this is that we found that people were going outside of the community, and we have our own population here, our own museum,” she said. “We can have students recognize people in the St. Louis Metropolitan area.”

Jill Kassander, a docent at the museum who also works with bar and bat mitzvah children (and a freelance writer for the Jewish Light), said that localism guides not just the Heritage Project but also the HMLC itself.

“If you go to some other museums around the country and around the world in some cases you may see the same photographs,” she said. “One of the things that makes our museum unique to St. Louis is that the exhibits and photographs come from our survivors who came here to St. Louis.”

Kassander, who is presently collecting photos and testimony for the program, said that not only will the project allow an avenue for survivors to memorialize themselves and their relatives but also presents a learning opportunity for the children.

“When I give tours, I ask kids, ‘Why do you think your teachers have brought you here? The Holocaust was over 50 years ago. World War II was over 60 years ago. Why not choose something that’s happening right now that you can look at?'” she said. “The reason is that unfortunately there were some very unique things in human history about the Holocaust and the lessons that we learned and are doomed to keep repeating if we don’t get them through our heads. It’s a way to keep these lessons alive to remember that these are real people and remember the potential to history that was lost.”

Cavender said that the Heritage Project is a personal way for children to connect with the past – as well as with the people who lived it.

“One thing I could envision is this young bar or bat mitzvah saying Kaddish for this person for the rest of their lives, memorializing them annually and having this sort of deep connection, just from this program,” she said.