Helping teachers discuss a difficult subject

Helping teachers discuss a difficult subject

Educators’ conference will explore the unevenness of U.S. refugee policies

Joe Nappi talks about Ukrainian history at the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale College in Middletown.
Joe Nappi talks about Ukrainian history at the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale College in Middletown.

How can educators teach about the Holocaust? How do they teach about the way the United States treated Jewish asylum seekers?

Educators want to present a complete picture, even if it’s not complimentary, Dr. Adara Goldberg, the director of Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center, said.

To help them answer these questions, the center, in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is hosting an educators’ conference called “Refuge Denied: Exploring the Refugee Experience in the United States from the Holocaust to the Present” on March 19. (See below.)

The conference will look at the experiences of refugees in the 1930s and today and explore “where we are now, how far we have come, what we have learned, and what we still have to learn,” Dr. Goldberg said. The program is geared not only to classroom teachers but also to educators who work in such nontraditional spaces as synagogues, community centers, and Hebrew schools. “We want to ensure that anybody who is going to be addressing these topics has accurate information and access to relevant materials.”

The speakers will be veteran educators Karen Hinkes Levine, Joe Nappi, and Kate English. All three have completed the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s teacher fellowship program.

Ms. Levine taught eighth-grade social studies in Parsippany for 39 years, has won awards for her teaching and for excellence in Holocaust education, and serves on the board of the Council of Holocaust Educators. She is working with the Holocaust Resource Center to coordinate the conference.

“We’re trying to help teachers teach a very difficult subject,” Ms. Levine said. “While different situations, and different periods in history, are never the same, there are comparisons that can be made.”

She will talk about the restrictions on immigration that were in place in the 1930s. She’ll also discuss the many resources the Holocaust Museum offers for teaching this topic.

When talking about the problems of emigration and immigration, of people wanting to leave or having to leave, students often ask why they didn’t just leave, Ms. Levine said. “But it wasn’t as simple as all that,” she explained. “The United States had a lot of restrictions on immigration; people in this country weren’t looking to have more immigrants.

“So these are important issues to discuss. The conference will suggest ways to help students look at the issue critically and think about why people feel the way they do and why policies are set up the way they are.

“I think this is going to be a wonderful program and that teachers will walk away not only with information, but also with resources. The relevant question for teachers is generally not about what happened but about how to teach a topic to a specific group of students at a particular time — and I think the conference will give them a lot of resources to do that.”

Joe Nappi, left, Karen Levine, and Kate English

Joe Nappi, a longtime teacher at Monmouth Regional High School who has received many awards for his classes, including an Outstanding Human Rights Educator award from Kean University, was part of the team that developed lesson plans for the Ken Burns documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust” that was released in 2022.

Mr. Nappi will talk about the lesson plan that he created about U.S. immigration policy and the experience of Jewish refugees. The lesson begins with a discussion of the restrictive measures that were put in place in the United States beginning in 1924 and remained in effect through the Holocaust, making it very difficult for Jewish refugees to come to America.

The material then traces the process that was required for refugees to navigate that system by highlighting case studies of three families featured in the Ken Burns documentary. Only one of the families arrived in the United States in time to escape the Holocaust.

The lesson helps students see “what it actually took for somebody to make it to the United States and the inequities and the unfairness of the system,” Mr. Nappi said. “It helps them understand the restrictive American policies and how those policies directly impacted the lives of people who were trying to seek refuge in the United States during that period.”

The lesson concludes with an extension activity that gives students the opportunity to look at the modern-day refugee crisis and examine how U.S. policy has changed. “It’s been my experience in teaching this history that students can be extremely judgmental on the things that happened in the past; they tend to have a tremendous amount of sympathy for the people who were trying to escape during that period of time,” Mr. Nappi said.

“I think it’s important for them to understand that right now we are facing a global refugee crisis and that so many of these policy questions are not questions for the history book, they’re questions of modern policy right now. And while I certainly think it’s inappropriate to analogize between different situations, I definitely think students can really look at these policies, and specifically at how these policies impact individuals.

“These are not easy questions,” Mr. Nappi continued. “Obviously, there are extremes — totally open borders or totally closed borders — but I want students to really wrestle with the nuances in between.

“I hope conference participants can take this lesson plan back to their students and really have some thought-provoking discussions.”

Ms. English taught for 18 years in Connecticut and Virginia public schools, was recognized as a district-wide teacher of the year, and received an award for Holocaust education. She now directs the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights, an organization that focuses on how Holocaust education can be a guidepost for other contemporary settings.

Ms. English will speak toward the end of the conference about contemporary refugee cases and about how U.S. policies on refugees have changed since the Holocaust.

“Most of the conference will focus on the complexity of why people were or were not able to come to the United States in the 1930s,” she said. “What were the barriers to leaving Nazi-occupied territory — there was a list of requirements just to leave — and what were the barriers to immigrate to the United States? One of the many tragedies of the Holocaust is how many people were well into that process and couldn’t get through the line before the Nazis started the Final Solution.”

Ms. English’s presentation will focus on what the barriers to immigration to the U.S. look like today, and she’ll discuss examples of refugee situations from countries including Ukraine, Venezuela, and Syria. She will talk about questions such as, “how do we treat refugees now? And what’s the Venn diagram — what does current policy have in common with the policies that were in place at that time and how is current policy different? And how do we understand these similarities and differences?

“How does the United States response to refugees during the Holocaust resonate today?” she continued. “Did we learn from that response? If so, what are we doing differently? If not, what should we be doing?

“As a teacher, I want to give students the opportunity to do these investigations and to think critically about the issues.

“We’re very excited to have a conversation about contemporary refugees,” Ms. English concluded. “It’s an area we haven’t had the chance to explore deeply, and so this conference is a terrific opportunity to dig deep into the facts and the research on refugees and to work together to understand the issues better.”

Who: Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

What: Will host an educators’ conference on “Refuge Denied: Exploring the Refugee Experience in the United States from the Holocaust to the Present”

When: Sunday, March 19, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (lunch included)

Where: Kean’s campus in Union

For more information: Email Sarah Cykendall at or call her at (908) 737-4632