Nine people and two institutions responsible for teaching or acting upon valuable lessons regarding the Holocaust were honored on June 20 by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.
The awards were announced on June 8 by Lawrence Glaser, the commission’s new executive director (see sidebar).
“Some of the awards are named for survivors and all of them honor students, teachers, or institutions who stand up or in some way contribute to the positive environment in their schools and respect for others…,” Glaser told NJ Jewish News in a June 10 phone interview. “Some of the stuff these folks do is just astonishing.”
The certificates honoring awardees were presented during a luncheon at the commission’s office in Trenton.
Perhaps the most notable recipient was Jamaica Ponder, an African-American student at Princeton High School. In April, Ponder blew the whistle on some fellow students who added an anti-Semitic dimension to a drinking game called beer pong; dubbing the game “Holocaust Pong” and “Alcoholocaust,” they used images of swastikas and stars of David.
Ponder condemned the incident on her personal blog and circulated a photo of the game.
The students who played the game, she wrote, “must be trapped in the delusional mindset that making a drinking game based off the Holocaust is cool. Or funny. Or anything besides insane. Because that’s what this is: insanity.”
“I’m not even Jewish and I’m still offended,” she told The New York Times.
Ponder was given the Upstander Award for “recognizing injustice and acting in a way that takes a positive stand against prejudice,” said Glaser, adding that Ponder “behaved properly in the face of a lot of folks who were behaving badly.”
Elias Stevens, a seventh-grade student at Northstar Academy in Newark, and Allison Vandal, an eighth-grader at Readington Middle School in Whitehouse Station, received the Youth Holocaust/Genocide Awareness Award. Sponsored by the commission in collaboration with the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center in Ewing — which, according to its website, “teaches children empathy” and addresses “bullying, bias, prejudice, and discrimination” — and the Axelrod Foundation, based in Monmouth Beach, the award is presented to students who have “demonstrated an altruistic act of generating awareness, empathy, and action for Holocaust and/or genocide education.”
A budding actress and playwright, Allison created a theatrical production as well as poems and a video production about bullying. She also came to the defense of a Mormon student who was being tormented because of her religious beliefs.
Elias was cited by a teacher for writing a poem called “Burn,” which described the tortures of Auschwitz while the Nazis “watched us die, clearly amused.”
Matthew Survis of Millburn, who founded Upstander Initiatives at Millburn High School and later at the University of Pennsylvania, won the Gina Lanceter Power of One Award. Endowed by Lanceter, a Montclair resident and survivor — as a girl, she jumped off a moving train headed for the Majdanek concentration camp — the award was given to Survis for “utilizing the lessons of the Holocaust as a launching pad to promote social awareness and action among teenage students.”
Heather Lutz, who teaches English and literature of the Holocaust at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, was given the Sister Rose Thering Award for developing a Shoa literature program. When she began the course four years ago, 30 students were enrolled, said Glaser. The class was so well received that she now has 90 students in three separate sections “and wins accolades from students and administrators. She is right on target,” Glaser said. Her award honors Thering, the late Roman Catholic nun who battled forces of anti-Semitism in her church and established the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange.
Emily Bengels, an enrichment teacher at Readington Middle School in Whitehouse Station, received the Hela Young Award in recognition of her efforts to promote respect for and acceptance of diverse groups in her school. Bengels created a “living history” project in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said Glaser, “and was one of 25 educators chosen from a pool of international applicants to participate in a four-day workshop during the memorial ceremony at Auschwitz.”
Brady Mahar, a social studies teacher at Whippany Park High School, Whippany, was presented with the Margit Feldman Teaching Award by family members of Feldman, a survivor from Hungary who lives in Bridgewater.
Mahar guided his students in the building of models of sites of Holocaust atrocities, including ghettoes and concentration camps, said Glaser. Through the project, he said, they created a “‘walk of horror’ through the school” to bring home the enormity of the Holocaust, said Glaser.
Michelle Myers, who teaches French at Sterling High School in Somerdale, was honored with the Jack Zaifman Humanitarian Award in honor of Zaifman, another survivor.
The Feldman and Zaifman awards, said Glaser, are conferred on educators who have demonstrated “outstanding efforts in teaching the Holocaust and genocide in the classroom, as well as issues of bias, prejudice, bigotry, and bullying.”
Finally, the Honey & Maurice Axelrod Award was bestowed on the Goodwin Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Cherry Hill and the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education Project at Montclair State University for demonstrating “outstanding efforts in teaching the Holocaust and genocide in the state, as well as in the field of bias, bigotry, and prejudice reduction.”