By Cindy Mindell ~
BLOOMFIELD – Bloomfield public schools director of visual and performing arts Dr. Joseph Olzacki and Rabbi Philip Lazowski of Bloomfield created the Identity Project in 2007 as a way to raise awareness about genocide among high-school students. “What makes you you?” is the way he describes the program in a nutshell.
“The over-arching concept is that, if you have a very strong foundation for who you are and who you’re connected to as part of your identity, nobody can take away your identity,” says Dr. Ellen Stoltz, chief academic officer of the district.
Last month, for the first time since 2008, Olzacki and Lazowski led 115 Bloomfield High School students and community members on a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The group toured the museum and met with Justine Mbabazi Niyibizi, First Counselor of the Embassy of Rwanda in Washington.
The trip was made possible by the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. It also receives support and guidance from the Connecticut Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League. The trip concluded a year-long interdisciplinary Holocaust and genocide studies curriculum. Students read Lazowski’s Holocaust-era memoir, “Faith and Destiny,” viewed films on the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur, and wrote about personal experiences.
Stoltz, who joined Bloomfield public schools as chief academic officer last July, accompanied the students on the trip, her first visit to the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum. “For me, it certainly was reminiscent of some of the visual images I saw growing up, attending Temple Sinai Sunday school in Newington,” she says. “Since kindergarten, we would see the black-and-white clips of the atrocities. Being at the museum made such a powerful impact, and stirred a lot of memories and conversations.”
Stoltz experienced the deepest personal connection in the Tower of Faces, a narrow three-story-high passageway whose walls are covered with photographs of the Jews of Eisiskes, Lithuania, liquidated during a two-day mass shooting by the German Einsatzgruppen and Lithuanian auxiliaries. Stoltz’s paternal grandmother was born in the same town.
“As a Jew, there will always be a personal connection there,” she says. “It adds another dimension when you’re touring the museum. It’s not just something that happened in history but something that happened to my family, my people.”
Olzacki and the school district are planning next year’s Identity Project, based on the theme, “We Can Change the World.”