How Pluralism Combats Antisemitism

Barbara Birch Attends Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony in Mexico City

In a sea of rising antisemitism around the world, I had an opportunity to participate in an incredibly uplifting experience in late January in Mexico City. What I witnessed was pluralism in action in which multiple communities came together to create meaningful connections across difference.

First, Jewish students in a 100% Jewish ORT school, in a tight-knit Jewish community, welcomed non-Jewish students from the ORT school in Sofia, Bulgaria, to stay in their homes and to participate in an International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at their school. The event took place at Colegio Olami ORT, a pluralistic Jewish school in Mexico City, that is the result of a recent merger of the prior Ashkenazi and Sephardi schools. It opened with a combined total of 1,200 K-12 students this past fall and their first public event was the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony.

The program had a very personal focus for those attending the event; it commemorated the 80th anniversary of the liberation of the Jews of Bulgaria. During the event, they interviewed Alberto Bejarano, a survivor from Sofia who immigrated to Mexico after the war and is a founder of the local Sephardic community. They also welcomed Roman Stoyanov, the grandson of a Righteous Among the Nations who helped save the Jews of Sofia. Hundreds of teenagers sat quietly for more than an hour — you could hear a pin drop — as they listened to first-hand testimony of two sides of the same historical moment. The students from each city, along with nearly 1,000 high school students from Mexico City, Jewish and non-Jewish, witnessed this powerful event together.

As I participated in this event, lighting one of the six candles in memory of the six million lost in the Holocaust, I knew that these students would have an understanding of what happened in the past and know that their individual actions in the face of evil can make a difference. I also knew that this wasn’t an isolated experience for the students; they were prepared for this event and, like all ORT students, they engage in activities that give them a deep and personal connection to others, and the tools to recognize and respond to injustice in all its forms.

ORT Bulgaria Director Plamen Petrov accompanied the six students from the ORT school in Sofia to participate in the event, and take part in a week-long exchange with the students from Mexico. The school in Sofia is a public school with both Jewish and non-Jewish students, who learn together regularly, including Hebrew and Jewish subjects. Next month, the Mexican students will go to Sofia for the second half of the exchange to see first-hand the history of the Sofia Jewish community and learn together with their peers. These Jewish and non-Jewish students had an amazing experience, learning with and from each other, about the history that shaped their communities, the impact of the past, and the potential for the future.

These kinds of educational experiences happen across the ORT global network of schools. Each school serves its own community in many critical ways. But the value of being connected to schools in more than 25 countries enables personal learning experiences that transcend cultural and religious boundaries. As a result, students better understand their own history, how that history and experience is interconnected to others around the world, and how to apply that learning to inform how they will live their lives. Having true empathy for others, being allies with others, has to be learned and practiced.

ORT is working to strengthen these tools in young people today by creating opportunities for students to engage in social and emotional learning, non-violent communication, and cultural encounters that give them a broader worldview and a chance to engage in dialogue. What happened last week in Mexico City was a chance to see this in action.

<em>School Board President Mario Nissan hands me the candle during the ceremony<em>
<em>Students from Bulgaria and Mexico enjoy time together<em>
News Barbara Mexico

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