University of Pennsylvania junior Matt Survis’ Holocaust education program, Upstander Initiative, teaches students about the importance of standing up for others and not letting people get bullied or taken advantage of.
For University of Pennsylvania junior Matt Survis, the history and lessons of the Holocaust aren’t Jewish ones; they’re to be imparted to everyone.
It was that realization eight years ago — at the age of 12 — that first drove Survis, 20, to begin educating people about the Holocaust when he created the Upstander Initiative. The program teaches students about the importance of standing up for others and not letting people get bullied or taken advantage of.
“The idea is that we use the Holocaust as a launching pad to promote social awareness and action among high school students,” Survis said. “We try to attack the bystander problem that I believe is at the heart of many of society’s most vexing issues. The lesson is conceptually simple, but practically challenging.
“I want to inspire a society of individuals who don’t just stand by idly as bad things happen, but instead try to promote change through action. When you see something bad, do something about it. The curriculum is unique because it was developed for students by a student.”
His Holocaust education program, which he began in North Jersey, is today being implemented in low-income areas of Philadelphia. Survis told the Jewish Exponent that for these children, who often struggle with violence and hardship, learning about the Holocaust can help them stand up for themselves.
“You want to make sure that you can make being an upstander cool,” Survis said. “I think it’s very important to the Jewish people, but it’s also a lesson for humanity.”
Growing up in Millburn, N.J., Survis knew the Holocaust basics, but had never met a survivor. For his Bar Mitzvah project at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, he was paired with survivor Marsha Kreuzman, who told him her story and asked him to not let people forget about the Holocaust.
“I think it’s very easy for you to learn about the Holocaust and not do anything about it,” he said.
He ultimately became close enough with Kreuzman that he now calls her “grandma.” After giving his mitzvah project presentation to his Hebrew school, his desire to educate people and pass on her story was born.
“I didn’t fully understand it until I met her,” he said. “She said to me, ‘Now that you have heard my story, it’s your job to ensure that future generations never forget the Holocaust.’ While it is a daunting charge to put on the shoulders of a 13-year-old, I decided that the best way to do that was to teach it to other students.”
In eighth grade, he developed a curriculum with four parts: history, reading diary entries of teens who died in the Holocaust, meeting the survivor and reflecting and relating it to the students’ lives.
He first taught the curriculum during the spring of 2009 at his Hebrew school. He spoke with the former director of the school, Julie Wohl, with whom he already had a pre-existing relationship, and explained the motivation and details of the curriculum. She was extremely receptive to the idea.
Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom said children pair up with Holocaust survivors for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah projects, but no one usually takes it to the next level like Survis did.
“The curriculum has grown in its impact because Matt has grown and it’s a direct reflection of him,” the rabbi said.
At first, he only taught his course in his Hebrew school, but eventually, thanks to New Jersey’s requirement for mandatory Holocaust education, word spread and he began meeting with students in more than 20 high schools throughout the state. Barbara Wind, from the Holocaust Council of Metro West, was instrumental in helping him gain exposure with a broader audience.
Survis recalled that it wasn’t the easiest transition to make. In fact, he laughed, the first time he was in a classroom, he was so nervous that his face was buried in his paper the whole time.
With momentum for his course building, Survis didn’t want to let his impending college career impede the Upstander Initiative’s progress. Accordingly, when he arrived in Philadelphia, he recruited about 30 people to be tutors and join him in educating children about the Holocaust.
“Over the years, I have continuously refined the curriculum to make it as engaging and impactful as possible,” Survis said. “Further, the peer-to-peer component is extremely important. When trying to establish an environment where being an upstander is ‘cool,’ positive peer pressure is the most powerful tool. High school students are often much more receptive to the upstander message when it comes from a group of college-age students.”
Survis began teaching the curriculum to charter schools in Philadelphia his freshman year. He has worked with the First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School in North Philadelphia three times and the Freiere Charter School in Center City to name a few. Also, planning and resources are provided in part by Penn Hillel.
Primarily, they visit schools in low-income areas where students may have never met a Jewish person.
As opposed to New Jersey, where he was paired with the same survivor at every school, in Philadelphia, the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center provides a different one each time he teaches.
Although he is not yet sure what he plans to do for a living, Survis is emphatic that he wants his program to continue after he graduates. He plans to train more people and educate more schools on how to implement the curriculum on their own.
“It’s really changed how I interact with the world now,” he added. “To be an upstander, you not only have to be someone who recognizes an issue, but you have to be someone who does something about it.”
History teacher Jennifer Luneau at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School has worked with Survis for three semesters. She said his curriculum has made a difference with her students because the kids are drawn to Survis and his friends as they are close in age.
While they learn about the Holocaust in school, listening to survivor David Tuck on Feb. 17 was a completely different and eye-opening experience, she said.
The students peppered Tuck with questions about his family, what he wanted to be when he was younger, the hardest part of being in a concentration camp, what his mindset was like, if he ever lost his faith in God and what his tattoo looked like. Tuck asked them to write him a letter about what it was like to meet him.
“A lot of the students that come to the school don’t have the best lives,” Luneau said. “It helps students realize that the issues they face in their lives are the same issues that people around the world are facing. If they start to stand up for what they believe in, others will follow — and it will cause a change.”
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