BRATTLEBORO -- "We feel special here in Brattleboro," said Kate Judd, Spiritual Leader of the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community Congregation Shir Heharim. But anti-Semitism, said Judd, "is an age-old issue. It is an issue anywhere in the world."
Anti-Semitism is exactly what Rebecca Nadeau, a middle school teacher at the Saint Michael Roman Catholic School, was looking to combat when she spent a week at a professional training institute in Washington, D.C., this July. Nadeau was effusive when discussing her experiences at the Eileen Ludwig Greenland National Bearing Witness Summer Institute. She described it as a transformative experience that changed her as a human being.
"It was definitely the most memorable teacher training I've ever attended," said Nadeau.
The Bearing Witness Institute, hosted by the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, D.C., from July 21 to 26, brought together 40 Catholic school educators from 26 different states for a packed schedule of lectures and trips. The speakers at the institute, comprised of representatives of both the Catholic and Jewish faith, discussed Catholic/Jewish relations in recent decades, the history of anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. The participants had the opportunity to speak to a Holocaust survivor, participate in a model Shabbat dinner, and analyze the common ground between different faiths.
Nadeau found the atmosphere at the institute to be very affirming.
Nadeau's definition of anti-Semitism shifted since attending the program, and she wants to bring her new perspective back to her school and her classroom. One of the topics that Nadeau covers in her classroom is the Holocaust. She wants to "reposition the lens" with which she covered the issue, moving to a lesson plan that focused on the role of the bystander. Nadeau noted with pride that, for the most part, her students at Saint Michael were respectful of others. Some even came to her class with a good awareness of Jewish traditions and history. However, "I do think that, just like students in any other school, differences and bias play a part in any classroom," said Nadeau.
Working to understand the commonalities between people of different faiths is a step towards accepting and understanding differences. Judd, who recently completed her own program on Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Cohen Center of Keene State College, in nearby New Hampshire, believes that interfaith activities, on their own, are a form of activism against anti-Semitism. For four years running, Shir Heharim has participated in helping the Brattleboro community understand Judaism by coming to a class in the Brattleboro Union High School to discuss Jewish rituals and traditions, as well as the different movements (reform, conservative, orthodox) in the Jewish community.
These activities are part of many aimed at lowering the incidences of anti-Semitic activity in the United States. In the 2013 Anti-Defamation League's Audit of Anti-Semitic Events, published annually, the ADL reported 927 incidents of anti-Semitism in 2012. This is a 14 percent decrease from the 2012 numbers, but the ADL warns readers not to be too optimistic. While certain types of anti-Semitic acts have declined, levels of anti-Semitic vandalism and threats remain steady.
This summer, Nadeau increased her interfaith understanding. This coming school year, she hopes to increase her students'.
Rev. Dennis McManus, Ph. D., who teaches at both Georgetown University and St. John's Seminary in Boston, had the strongest impact on Nadeau's experience in D.C. He was one of the main speakers and lectured on the interactions between Jews and Catholics. He put his lectures on collaboration into action during a joint reading of Gospel texts with Rabbi Elliott Dorff, rector and professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University. McManus also lectured on the Nostra Aetate, a declaration passed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The Nostra Aetate asserts the unity of all religions.
"One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth," reads a section at the beginning of the Aetate.
The Aetate continues by describing the Church's acceptance of other religions, noting that certain tenets of even non-Abrahamic faiths reflect Catholic ideals.
In an effort to put the words of the Aetate into practice, the Anti-Defamation League, in partnership with the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, developed the Bearing Witness Institute in 1996.
The Bearing Witness Institute, which has been recognized by the Holy See for its work, began with a workshop of 14 Catholic school educators in their first year. They have since developed local programs and grown their program in D.C.
Lillian Podlog will be a junior at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., this fall. She is interning at the New England Center for Circus Arts.