[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]
For many years, the Jewish community, under the leadership of the Jewish Community Relations Council, has commemorated the Holocaust with a major program on Yom HaShoah. Over time, it has become a major interfaith outreach event because the lessons it teaches about tolerance, understanding and standing up for justice are universal and help us build critical bridges.
Interfaith involvement in the program grew, too. Students of many faiths from Catholic, public and private schools presented readings and participated in other ways in the program. Liberators of all faiths were recognized and stories of survivors told of righteous gentiles who made the difference between life and death for them.
The Yom HaShoah Committee grew in diversity, too, as Holocaust educators, religious leaders and caring individuals drawn from the entire community came together to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust endure.
The program itself has been held at venues across the city, and crowds numbering more than 500 have turned out to honor the memories of those who did not survive and to learn from those who did.
This year, Fred Whittaker, a science and social studies middle school teacher at St. Francis of Assisi and dedicated Holocaust educator, will chair the Annual Community-Wide Yom HaShoah Commemoration. It is the first time someone from outside the Jewish community has chaired this committee, further emphasizing the program’s importance to the entire Louisville community.
In addition, this year’s program will focus on honoring righteous gentiles and learning from their stories. Planning has just begun, so details for the April 11 program are not yet available.
This year, at Yom HaShoah, Whittaker said, it will be a “wonderful year to celebrate courageous compassion and … the great promise that solidarity and partnership between our community bring and to allow us to be the people our faiths tell us to be.”
This year, Whittaker has been named the Archdiocese teacher of the year. The nomination begins with a recapitulation of the partnership he has created with the Jewish Community of Louisville and his dedication to Holocaust education detailed here.
Whittaker, who received the Julie E. Linker Community Relations Young Leadership Award from the Jewish Community Federation in 2008, has demonstrated through his commitment to tikkun olam, the repair of the world, that community relations work is a way of life to which he not only dedicates himself, but infuses into the lives of his students.
For many years, he has been teaching his students the lessons of the Holocaust, inviting Holocaust survivors to his classroom to share their stories and culminating the unit with a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Some of his students recently came to a Jewish Community of Louisville Board meeting to thank them for the help they received from the Jewish Foundation of Louisville’s grant from the Father Schmidt Fund that subsidized their recent trip (see story, page 6).
Whittaker worked closely with survivors Ernie Marx, Ilse Meyer and Ann Klein prior to their deaths, and today, counts on Fred Gross to bring understanding of surviving the Holocaust to his students.
Whittaker’s students are currently engaged in making a movie, offering Holocaust survivors the opportunity to preserve their final words, their memories and legacy and getting their words of advice.
In addition to encouraging them to participate in Yom HaShoah, he encourages them to nurture their connections to the Jewish community. “We come to the Chanukah celebration, meet on Hunger Walks and work with Matt Goldberg and the JCRC on social justice and awareness,” he said.
In 2005, Whittaker and his students undertook a three-year quest to mandate Holocaust education for all students in Kentucky. They lobbied the legislature and worked hard to achieve their goal. On May 8, 2008, Gov. Steve Beshear came to St. Francis and signed House Joint Resolution 6, the Ernie Marx Resolution, into law. While the resolution doesn’t mandate Holocaust education, it encourages and supports it.
Whittaker began the journey that led to this quest 10 years ago. “I chanced across an invitation on my e-mail to attend the trip for teachers to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, sponsored by the Federation, with Ernie Marx” (z”l), he said.
Before that trip, he had felt a connection with the Holocaust, “so that when I received that e-mail, I jumped at the opportunity.”
While in Washington, Marx challenged all the teachers to bring what they had seen back to the students. Whittaker recognized the need to teach his students the lessons of the Holocaust, but didn’t know how to go about it.
“So I reached out to Ernie,” he continued, “to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and to other Holocaust scholars and really received a lot of input that helped” him reach his “students deeply and appropriately.
“Somewhere along the line,” he said, “I began to transcend just being a historian and teaching history to teaching about life. I moved the Holocaust unit from my history class into my religion class. The venue of the religion classroom enabled me to explore not just facts and dates, but humanity and interconnections between lives, faiths and generations of people.” He came to view the history of the Holocaust as something sacred and something that helps to “bind my students to a greater good.”
“A good teacher is always teachable,” Whittaker added. “I teach my students to be open to being changed and I became changed myself.”
He has continued to build on his accomplishments. He’s served as a member of the Yom HaShoah Committee for a number of years, and helped facilitate a program for Arab and Jewish Israeli teens created by the Ghetto Fighters Museum in the Western Galilee in Israel when that group came to Louisville.
Whittaker carried his commitment to tikkun olam (the repair of the world) a step further. In 2008, he established a connection for his class with a school in Sderot, the southern Israeli community that has borne the brunt of the missile attacks from Gaza for many years, and he maintains that connection today.
When Ernie Marx died, Whittaker began recruiting teachers to participate in the teachers’ trip to the Holocaust Museum and helps educate the participants about how to use what they learn in the classroom.
He has also traveled to Israel and visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and Museum, and has attended other Holocaust workshops.
Originally from Waukegan, IL, Whittaker traveled with his father’s studies, eventually settling in Louisville. “I count Louisville as my hometown, unless I’m pressed,” he said.
He is a graduate of Trinity High School and has a B.S. in science with a minor in early childhood development from the University of Louisville. He’s been at St. Francis for 20 years, where he taught kindergarten before moving to middle school 11 years ago. He is also the director of the after-school and summer childcare programs for the school.
He has two adult children, Michael and Christine. His mother is Julie Whittaker, and he has a brother, Steve (Melissa).