For over two hours on a recent rainy day, 10 Weber Middle School seventh- and eighth-graders with two guidance counselors and an assistant principal participated in the Sixth Annual Tolerance Day Program. While the outdoors was gloomy, inside the Barry Career & Technical Center meeting room in Westbury 345 students from 31 schools on Long Island felt uplifted. Weber student Olivia Gilmore said the groups had lots of great ideas to end prejudice in our schools. "I'm so glad I came because I learned so much about different things happening in our world, and I got to hear speakers who were amazing," she said. Other Weber students included Jared Sambursky, Shuvo Abedin, Matias Franco, Whitney Henry, Paul Hyman, Marvin Reyes and Joey Santodonato.
The goal of establishing a Tolerance Day was to instill respect and appreciation of all people, to reduce intolerance and to teach middle school students they can make a difference. Sponsored by the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County in cooperation with the Nassau County Anti-Bias Consortium-Middle School Division and the Nassau County Middle Level Principals Association, Tolerance Day was conceived after the events of September 11, 2001.
First the students listened to the stories of two speakers who were victims of genocide. Jacqueline Murekatete's story of the genocide in Rwanda that decimated almost her entire extended family started with tensions between the two tribes of people, the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Hutu, the majority group, called the Tutsi names such as cockroaches. Jacqueline lived her first 10 years hearing derogatory stories about her tribe, the Tutsi. The intolerance escalated into mass murder with Hutu neighbors and past friends killing Tutsi. Jacqueline hid in an orphanage run by an Italian priest who held off the marauding Hutu from killing the children in his care who were Tutsi. She said the purpose of telling her story was so students could realize the extremes of intolerance. She recently graduated from NYU and has a website promoting tolerance, Jacqueline's Human Rights Corner at www.miraclecornersoftheworld.org.
Speaker David Gerwirtzman and his family were Holocaust survivors who were hidden for two years. Before being hidden by a compassionate farmer they witnessed disturbing changes brought about by the German occupying army in Poland. A German army officer came into David's classroom when he was 10 years old. He ordered the students to tell him who was a Jew. When no one spoke up he brutally attacked the teacher, saying he would continue if the Jewish students were not identified. One student pointed to David, but as the German officer went for his gun, David ran out of the room and escaped. Out of the population of 8,000 Jewish people in his village only 16 survived.
Jacqueline first heard David speak several years ago at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens and wrote to him comparing her early life to his. They have become "survivor soul mates," speaking together nationwide, including at the UN General Assembly.
When the speakers finished their stories, students divided into groups of 20 and were led by a facilitator in a discussion of their own experiences with intolerance. Were they victims of intolerance or bystanders or perpetrators or heroes like the priest who protected Jacqueline and the farmer who hid David? The goal of the discussion was to try to turn students from being bystanders of intolerance to "upstanders," taking action to stop intolerance. A list of three ways to promote tolerance in their communities and schools was generated and one person from each group explained the list that was shown on an overhead projector when everyone returned to the large meeting room.
For more information on the education programs of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County located in Glen Cove go to their website Holocaust-nassau.org. or email the assistant educational director, Sarah Cushman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.