The School of Dialogue

A blog post by Director of Education Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click here.

This month, the JMM’s Public Programs calendar has our visitors travelling around the world to learn virtually about the Jewish museums in London, South Africa, and Australia. Our visitors are not the only ones travelling abroad this summer. Just last week over 50 teachers attending the virtual JMM/BJC Summer Teachers Institute had the opportunity to travel to Warsaw, Poland.

The theme for this year’s Institute was Teaching Students to be Upstanders and we wanted our teachers to learn about the exceptional work that is taking place at the Forum of Dialogue.

I had the opportunity to meet the staff at the Forum of Dialogue 18 months ago when I travelled to Poland.  I learned about an innovative education program called the School of Dialogue and was I was inspired by their work.  I wondered if the lessons learned from the School of Dialogue could be translated to the school systems in the United States.  How can we teach our students to care about their own history of their families, their communities, and the country?

The sign outside of their offices in Warsaw.

The Forum of Dialogue is the largest and oldest Polish non-governmental organization that is engaging in Polish/Jewish dialogue.  The Forum is dedicated to inspiring new connections between contemporary Poland and the Jewish people. Their work focuses on raising awareness of the history of Poland, and to connect the Polish people with their histories.  The Forum recognizes that the lack of knowledge about the shared history, as well as the prejudices that have built up over the years present significant obstacles in Polish/Jewish dialogue.

The goals for the Forum of Dialogue displayed in their offices.

Our teachers met Marta Usiekniewicz, the Forum’s Communications Manager who gave a wonderful presentation about the School of Dialogue. The School of Dialogue’s mission is to get students in high schools acquainted with the history of the Jewish people in Poland as well as their contributions to the social, cultural, economic development of the country.  The students learn new information about the roles that Jewish people played in their own communities and about local history.

Students participate in workshops to learn about the history of their region. Students learn about the Holocaust, its local impact, and the stories of individuals.  They conduct interviews with members of their own families and the community, sift through archives, and talk to local activists, to uncover forgotten facts and learn more about the local Jewish community that once lived in their region.

The information that these young people collect enable them to piece together and reconstruct the local Jewish history, and they eventually become the ambassadors/guides and present what they have learned. The students become the experts to their own teachers, parents, and town officials. They create films, websites and brochures dedicated to local history.  They create self-guided tours and routes that they publish on-line and in local tourist information centers and institutions.  These students are remembering and commemorating the town’s Jewish past.

Marta shared with our teachers that the School of Dialogue’s education initiative was launched in 2008 and today the program takes place throughout Poland and reaches almost 1000 students each year. Every year these students are celebrated at a gala held in Warsaw to honor the courage and hard work of the students. These students are bringing alive the Jewish community that was once an integral part of their region’s history.

In Person- Summer Teachers Institute 2019

As with all our Summer Teachers Institutes, we always have the teachers evaluate the program and give a reflection about the materials presented.  I wanted to share some of the comments about the presentation on the School of Dialogue.

“Marta’s presentation was so inspiring – creating a network of schools where students are active members of the community and building a more tolerant future in their towns is powerful.”

“Recognizing the students in a gala event shows appreciation on the national level.

Loved this presentation would love to get more students involved.”

“Wow!  Marta is a wonderful presenter! The School of Dialogue needs to be in schools in this country! What an amazing program! May they reach many more kids and towns.”

Outstanding — right in our lane as educators. Completely authentic material – even from a different geo-point for engagement

The School of Dialogue program really fit in with this year’s theme of the Summer Teachers Institute: Teaching Students to Be Upstanders.  It is wonderful to know that this unique education initiative exists that combines exploring local history at the same time confronting stereotypes and encouraging local activism. By participating in the School of Dialogue, the students express empathy and an understanding when they recognize the absence of the past.

Thanks to the actions of these courageous students, Jewish people are no longer seen as “others” and again become neighbors who despite having perished, are not forgotten. What a wonderful education initiative!  Our gratitude goes to Judy and Jerry Macks and the Joan and Joseph Klein Jr. Foundation for their generous support of the annual Summer Teachers Institute.

Thank you to the many partners who made this possible.


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