About 25 years ago, Dale Daniels watched as the sixth-graders in her son’s class at Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson were “mesmerized” by the Holocaust survivor speaking to them.
“What moved me most was the response of these 12-year-olds,” said Daniels, who retired June 21 as executive director of the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. The survivor, she said, “was able to engage the youngsters in tikkun olam as they questioned her about how [the Shoah] could happen.”
The reactions of the pre-teens showed Daniels “the power” survivors could have in fostering understanding of the tragic era and in stemming the tide of hate. Their questions, “about how they could have an impact on this world and how this could be prevented, is how I came to volunteer at the center and have a career in Holocaust studies.”
The mission Daniels took upon herself was to preserve the survivors’ stories and the memory of the victims, “to keep their history alive” in a way that would capture the imagination of all people, especially the young.
A resident of Holmdel, Daniels will be honored at the center’s annual testimonial dinner on Thursday, Nov. 14, at the Grand Marquis in Old Bridge; tributes will also be paid to Woodhaven Lumber & Millwork, a major supporter of the center, and to life members of Chhange. Daniels is succeeded by Dr. Sara Brown, who has a doctorate in comparative genocide studies, and previously managed post-secondary education programming at the USC Shoah Foundation, among other positions in the field.
Daniels started as a volunteer for Chhange, later served on the board, and in 2000 she became the 40-year-old center’s first executive director. She continues to serve as special projects co-director with Susan Yellin. During her tenure, Daniels has had a hand in educating thousands of individuals about the horrors of the Holocaust — as well as other historic genocides — through the development of programs and exhibitions aimed at schoolchildren, teachers, and the general community.
Yellin, who has worked alongside Daniels for 10 years, called her “a creative visionary,” “a true leader,” and “one of the most compassionate and committed people I have ever met.”
“She has taken Chhange and helped grow it into the amazing organization it is today,” Yellin told NJJN. “Her exceptional service to Chhange has not only benefitted the community, but also thousands upon thousands of children. Her devotion to students is helping to create the leaders of tomorrow. Her passion is to ensure they are empowered with tools needed in today’s world to become active and involved citizens and make the world a better place.”
One of the initiatives Daniels said she is most proud of is the Building Bridges program, started several years ago at Forrestdale Middle School in Rumson. The year-long curriculum on the Holocaust and genocide is designed to educate students in grades six-eight about how to respond to anti-Semitism, racism, bias, and hate speech in schools and playgrounds. Students in the program are taught to confront prejudice and hate, gain an understanding of difficult moments in history, and explore moral dilemmas.
The last section, she said, “takes in bullying, cyberbullying, equality in sports, and human trafficking, and ends with the students addressing those issues in their classrooms.”
Daniels was also a driving force behind the permanent Chhange exhibit, “Journeys Beyond Genocide: The Human Experience,” which opened in April 2018 and focuses on the Holocaust and the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda, selected because survivors of all three were living in the area.
The exhibit displays archival items from local survivors and aims to connect the lessons of those tragedies to today’s world, including a tiny leather book containing drawings and notes made by a young woman whose life was saved by Ruth Knopp, Chhange’s former librarian, who was a nurse at Theresienstadt, the concentration camp and ghetto near Prague. Another is an autograph book that belonged to Erica Rosenthal, the survivor who so captivated Daniels’ son’s class all those years ago. Containing messages from friends and teachers, the book is open to the page on which Rosenthal’s father wrote to his then-12-year-old daughter, who was about to leave on the Kindertransport to England. He would die at Auschwitz.
Daniels said seeing these and other items and hearing recordings of survivors like Rosenthal, now deceased, allows young people to empathize with the suffering of others their age.
“When we think that children from all parts of the world are having experiences like Erica’s, this all becomes so relevant,” she said.
As visitors reach the end of the display, they are faced with a section on standing up for human rights. The exhibit, said Daniels, “encapsulates all of Chhange’s expertise and what we stand for through a human story.”
Chhange’s “Holocaust Survivors’ Suitcases” program tells stories through family scrapbooks, photographs, and memorabilia. Each suitcase also contains a video of the survivor, a timeline of their experiences, a curriculum, and a message from the survivor to the students. “Every year each kid becomes an expert on one survivor and then teaches the rest of the class about them,” she said.
Daniels has a master’s degree in social service administration from the University of Chicago, a field of study that proved a “tremendous asset” in conducting interviews and developing a rapport with survivors. Calling herself “the keeper of stories because they were told to me,” she will continue to provide access to archival images and devote herself to small projects “that need to be done, but I never had enough time to do.”
Eventually, after Daniels completes those projects and transitions out of working for the center, she will spend more time with her husband, Steven; three children; and six grandchildren; and take up projects and activities that got pushed aside because her job was so demanding.
Even then, Daniels said, she will always be involved with Chhange in some capacity.
“From the time I started volunteering, working there has always been a real joy. I’ve met wonderful people,” she said. “Chhange will always be my first love.”
If you go
What: Chhange testimonial dinner
When: Thursday, Nov. 14, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Grand Marquis, Old Bridge
Cost: $180, $120 for educators and clergy; $1,500 for table of 10;
varying prices for ad journal purchases available
Honorees will be recently retired Chhange executive director Dale Daniels, Chhange life members, and Woodhaven Lumber & Millwork.