After years of immersing himself in the stories of Holocaust victims and survivors, Millburn High School student Matthew Survis has been recognized for his contributions to Shoa education.
Matthew received the Special Recognition Award from the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies. Cited for a curriculum he developed for students at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, the 17-year-old Millburn resident was honored at a program held at Seton Hall University in South Orange in May.
“You never undertake an initiative dealing with the Holocaust because of the recognition you will receive,” said Matthew, who will be a senior in the fall. “That being said, when you are honored for your work it is very fulfilling.”
SRTF executive director David Bossman said Matthew’s work “reflects the spirit of student engagement” and is “a wonderful contribution to what motivated Sister Rose in her career’s dedication: recognizing the need to engage young people in the classroom with lessons from the Holocaust.”
Thering, a Roman Catholic nun, was a Seton Hall professor who dedicated her life to Holocaust education and improving relations between Catholics and Jews.
Matthew, a member of Oheb Shalom, formulated a unique Holocaust curriculum for sixth- and seventh-grade students at the synagogue’s Rose and Isadore Zeman Religious School in April 2010.
“The Holocaust is a delicate topic and needs to be presented thoughtfully to middle school students,” said school director Robert Green. “Matthew is thoughtful, poised, and confident. I knew by his style that the curriculum was excellent and, moreover, he would present it in the way that would be both educational and healthy for the students.”
Matthew’s program, “The Holocaust: One Story at a Time, Understanding the Shoah Through the Individual Accounts of Children,” was recently integrated into the Holocaust education curriculum used throughout New Jersey. It is on the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education’s website, which provides materials for teachers to use in their classrooms.
Commission executive director Paul Winkler said Matthew’s point of view makes the syllabus special. “We always use the expression: We learn with our heads, our hearts, and our hands,” said Winkler. “And Matthew’s [curriculum] had those three things.”
Before thinking about teaching others, Matthew first educated himself through the Holocaust Council of MetroWest’s “Twin-With-a-Survivor” program, which he participated in as part of his bar mitzva project. Through the program, Matthew befriended Holocaust survivor Marsha Kreuzman of Livingston and listened to her stories.
“I was lucky to be twinned with a woman who inspired me and charged me to never let future generations forget about Holocaust victims and survivors,” he said. “Today, it is immensely fulfilling to know that in some small way I am having an impact and hopefully inspiring a new generation.”
Matthew still remains close to Kreuzman; he said sharing the awards event with her was “especially meaningful.”
Council director Barbara Wind said the “Twin-with-a-Survivor” program “has an enormous effect on young people. They learn so many things from the survivors beyond their stories, such as resourcefulness, resilience, and, most important, the understanding that despite all the suffering [the survivors] endured and still endure…they have chosen to remain connected to the Jewish community.”
After Matthew implemented his curriculum at his synagogue’s religious school, he presented it to the Principals’ Forum, which is sponsored by the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of Greater MetroWest NJ. Wind brought it to the attention of Winkler, who helped Matthew broaden it so that it could be used throughout the state.
“I developed my curriculum to help me honor Marsha’s charge to me,” said Matthew. “But it is gratifying to know that I am able to expand the number of people I can impact with my work through my curriculum being shared with other teachers.”
Matthew became a volunteer member of the council. As its youngest board member, he provides a teenage perspective and maintains its Facebook page.
“I sometimes look around the table at meetings and am amazed at what an honor it is to work with so many survivors, hear their stories, and share their concerns,” he said.
Matthew is working this year to enlist new teens to teach his curriculum locally. His plans for involvement in Holocaust education extend beyond the near future. “Marsha has charged me with being in Washington, DC, for the 100th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz [in 2045] to bear witness to a survivor,” he said. “I plan on being there.”