After a visit this spring to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington as part of a class trip, teacher Edward Hermeno returned to his West Los Angeles Catholic school with a desire to know more about the Nazis' genocide of European Jews and to make sure his students learned that history.
This week, the religion teacher at St. Sebastian School had his chance. He was among more than 50 schoolteachers in the Los Angeles Archdiocese to participate in a three-day conference, "Bearing Witness: Contemporary Issues, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust," at the Claretian Renewal Center near downtown.
The program, started in 1996 in Washington, was in Los Angeles for the first time under a partnership of the archdiocese and the Anti-Defamation League.
The Catholic educators heard lectures on the history of anti-Semitism and Catholic-Jewish relations, met Holocaust survivors, attended a service at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and visited the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
They are expected to take those experiences back to their classrooms, along with lessons on history and tolerance being designed by the Anti-Defamation League and the Shoah Foundation.
"I want to learn and teach about relating to people of different backgrounds," said Hermeno, who teaches religion and English to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. His students, he said, "don't think about other religions, and it's especially important to learn about tolerance in junior high."
Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, local program director for Bearing Witness, said she thinks the classes will help improve relations between Catholics and Jews. "Working with the largest archdiocese in the country presents a tremendous opportunity for education and partnership," she said.
The archdiocese's superintendent of secondary schools, Nancy Coonis, said the curriculum is particularly important for Catholic educators.
"Historically, there have been some deep misunderstandings between the two groups. The goals for what kind of world we want to see are the same: justice and respect for all people," she said.
Kathleen Levalle, who teaches philosophy and ethics at Santa Margarita High School in southern Orange County, said she was particularly interested in how government policies can result in genocide, and in the shortcomings of both the U.S. government and the Catholic Church in not doing more to protect European Jews during the 1930s and '40s.
"During the Holocaust, there were individual Catholics who did what they had to do [in helping Jews], but, unfortunately, many did not. But we have a human and religious obligation to do the right thing."