Mark DeLaRosa, a teacher of Theology and Catholic History at Cardinal Gibbons High School, will be spending a week during the month of July in Israel as a participant in the Bearing Witness Advanced Program for studying the Holocaust and the history of anti-Semitism. Mr. DeLaRosa, who studied last summer in Washington, D.C. at the Bearing Witness Regional program, was among 20 men and women chosen for the Advanced Program by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in partnership with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
The Bearing Witness™ Program is a professional development opportunity for Catholic school educators, created in 1996 by the ADL. Its purpose is to provide Catholic school educators with the training and resources necessary to teach their students about the historical relationship between Jewish and Catholic communities and the impact of that relationship on Catholic teaching, catechesis and liturgy. Participants in the program explore the history of anti-Semitism, from biblical times to the modern day. Themes include the role of the Church during the Holocaust, recent changes in Catholic teachings on Jews and Judaism, issues of prejudice and genocide in contemporary society and practical strategies for teaching students about the Holocaust and anti- Semitism.
Mr. DeLaRosa has already used his studies to enrich CGHS students both in and out of class. In the 2009-10 year he taught several sessions in the Holocaust Literature course offered to juniors and seniors. “It’s an English course,” the theology teacher explained, “but it was great to be invited to offer some perspectives, perhaps some spiritual lessons. The Bearing witness program provided us with taped interviews with Holocaust survivors and bystanders, and those were powerful for students. We ask, ‘Where do we see things like the Holocaust happening in the world today?’”
Asked about the most important lesson students could learn from studying the Holocaust, Mr. DeLaRosa said, “The Rabbis talk about ‘two deaths.’ The first one, of course, is the death of the body. But the second one is sadder: It’s when you are forgotten.” In class Mr. DeLaRosa asked students in pairs to tell each other their parents’ names. Then he asked them to name their grandparents. “By the time I asked them to name their great-grandparents,” he recalls, “there was very little talking in the room. Many of the students didn’t know their great-grandparents’ names.
“Talking about the Holocaust is difficult, but in talking about it we remember, and that’s what the survivors hope for, not to suffer that second death.”
Each year a group of CGHS students travels to Washington, D.C. for the national Right to Life March. The group always visits the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Mr. DeLaRosa, because of his training there, is able to give the students an in-depth tour. “Do you know what the most valuable artifact in the Museum is?” he asks. “It’s a milk jug. In Warsaw, Poland, Jews would put notes documenting their lives in a milk jug and when it was full they would bury it. Only five have been unearthed, and one is at the Museum.”
Bearing Witness™ Advanced, initiated in 2005, allows graduates of regional Bearing Witness Programs the opportunity to extend their learning, and includes a trip to Israel where participants hear from resident scholars and are afforded the chance to visit sites sacred to Jews and Christians. Educators visit Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust) and hear from religious and government leaders including the Papal Nuncio, the head of the Catholic community in Israel, kibbutz members, an Arab Affairs Correspondent from the Jerusalem Post and the Director of the Interfaith Encounter Association. The realities of daily life are brought home with visits to the security fence and the Golan Heights.
Mr. DeLaRosa, whose degree is in Hebrew, is “fascinated by Christian and Jewish differences in the interpretation of Scripture.” He particularly looks forward to seeing the holy places of Jerusalem, “to walking where Jesus walked,” and to visiting Yad Vashem. “I asked someone who had been there if there was a difference between the museum in Israel and the one in Washington,” he said. “And she said there’s a huge difference. The one in the U.S. tries to recreate the experience of the Holocaust, to put visitors there in a vivid way – you come away feeling, well, awful.
“Yad Vashem does that too, I’m told, but it’s also a lot more hopeful. It has a huge garden and a room with millions of candles. There’s a feeling not just of the past, but of the future, a determination to continue.
“So I’m very excited about the trip,” he says, “but even more I’m excited to bring back as much as I can to the Cardinal Gibbons community.”
Above: Mark DeLaRosa with some of his students in his classroom at Cardinal Gibbons High School.