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Catholic educators see Israel up close and personal

By Cindy Mindell

For 10 days in July, a group of 20 Catholic educators traveled and studied in Israel on the third annual ADL Bearing Witness Advanced Program, designed to equip teachers with tools to more effectively teach about the Holocaust and antisemitism, Catholic-Jewish relations, and the complexities of modern Israel.

The trip brought educators (and a priest) from around the U.S. face to face with a broad range of sites and speakers, including scholars, journalists, Holocaust survivors, government and military officials, and representatives of non-profit organizations.

The participants are all graduates of Bearing Witness, ADL’s professional development program for Catholic school educators. Among them were three Connecticut residents: Katelyn Doane from St. Rose of Lima School in Newtown, where she teaches social studies to sixth through eighth grade and religion in eighth grade; Fr. Michael Dolan of St. Margaret Mary Church in South Windsor; and Colleen Simon, who taught for 14 years at St. James School in Stratford and now teaches seventh and eighth grades at Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport.

For Doane, taking part in the introductory Bearing Witness program while teaching in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. “was an utterly transformative experience.” She decided to take the next step and apply for the Bearing Witness Advanced Program in Israel.

“Going to Israel has been a dream of mine since I was a child,” she says. “My initial desire sprang from wanting to see and walk in the land of the Bible. More recently, however, I also developed an interest in learning more about Israel in the 21st century. It is, after all, the only nation in the world with a Jewish majority. It is unique in the world and faces far more obstacles and criticism than most nations. I knew so little about what I had previously thought simply intricacies of Israeli history that I have now realized are actually key turning points in the development of modern Israel.”

In addition to gaining a better understanding of Jewish-Christian relations, Doane wanted to understand the status of Israel as a modern nation today.

Simon completed Bearing Witness while still a Catholic school teacher and took part on the Israel trip just before entering the Bridgeport public-school system.

“When I heard other people describe their experiences in the Bearing Witness Advanced Program, I knew it was going to be amazing but I just couldn’t imagine how,” she says. “Having learned so much in the first Bearing Witness program on the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust, I couldn’t imagine that there was more to learn. I was just open to the experience.”

There were many highlights on the trip for both Doane and Simon, ranging from the political to the personal.

“One of the things that was completely eye-opening for me was the unfair treatment that Israel receives in the United Nations,” Doane says. “As the moderator of a middle school Model UN club, I sometimes romanticize the organization, seeing only the ways that the UN works to promote peace and global cooperation. I want to help give my Model UN students a balanced understanding of the United Nations, so they can see where its shortcomings are and so they can work to problem-solve ways to eliminate biased treatment of nations in the future.”

For Simon, swimming in the Sea of Galilee was personally meaningful, and hearing the stories of Israeli life expanded her understanding from their perspectives.

“One woman we met with was very badly hurt in a bus bombing but she had no hate in her heart and she’s raising her children to be very accepting and open of all people,” says Simon. “To me, she’s such a hero because here’s a woman who has every right to be bitter and angry and afraid – but she’s not. She really impressed me with that sense of forgiveness, paying it forward, and now trying to teach the next generation so that there aren’t any more bus bombings or hate. There are so many people who are working for good in so many ways.”

Speakers helped paint a picture of Israel’s tiny size and significant security issues.

“It’s one thing to read about history but it’s another thing to see it,” Simon says. “A woman who works in the ADL office in Jerusalem told us about how she protects her children when they hear the alarm go off and have just so many seconds to get to safety. That’s something I try to bring to my students, because they have no idea what that’s like and I want them to know that people are dealing with a lot of challenges. Katelyn [Doane] really brought it together when she said to our group, ‘You just don’t realize how close everything is.’ It’s important for me to get that across to my students as well.”

Both teachers have already brought to the classroom what they learned in Israel.

Before the trip, Doane’s 6th-grade Ancient Civilizations unit on Mesopotamia included the history of the Jews during the Babylonian captivity. This year, she is adding another unit on the ancient Hebrews, drawing on the resources she gained in Israel. In her 8th-grade religion class, she is using her newfound tools to enhance the lesson plan for Mosaic Law and the divergence of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Simon is teaching a class on art as resistance, looking at artists during the Holocaust and drawing on what she learned at the Yad Vashem Art Museum.

There are many reasons why both educators would recommend the Bearing Witness Program to colleagues.

“I deepened my knowledge base so that I can be a better-educated instructor to my students,” she says. “Participating in this program has also helped me to be more informed about global politics and ongoing bias and antisemitism throughout the world today. I also gained a far more complete understanding of Judaism as it is practiced today.”

For Simon, the program “helps you see the world in a whole new way and makes you see how you teach in a whole new way.”

“ADL is such a great organization and they’re there for us after the program as well, to answer questions and offer support. Bearing Witness becomes part of who you are and I feel so blessed that I had that opportunity.”

Doane had an especially emotional moment when the group visited the Kotel just before Shabbat began.

“I had expected that it would be a Christian holy site for me, but standing at the Wall was a very spiritual moment,” she says. “I was inspired by the hundreds of people there in various states of prayer, some praying and swaying, some dancing and singing, and other crying in their prayer. As a Catholic, I believe I can encounter the presence of God in the Eucharist each day. When I was praying at the Western Wall, I kept thinking about the devotion of all those who pray, not at a place where God resides, but at a place where His Presence passed through because that is the closest they can get. It brought me to tears, and later, when it occurred to me that I may never visit the Western Wall again, I cried again because I didn’t want that first visit to be my last.”

CAP: Among the group of 20 Catholic educators who visited Israel on the ADL Bearing Witness Advanced Program last July were Connecticut residents Colleen Simon (front row, first person on the left), Katelyn Doane (standing next to Coleen Simon), and Fr. Michael Dolan (top row second from left.)

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