Students from the Jewish Middle School and Akiva School joined together in mid-March to take part in a local adaptation of The Butterfly Project, a national campaign to fuse arts education with Holocaust study as a means of cultivating empathy and social responsibility in children. The Butterfly Project began in 2006 at the San Diego Jewish Academy as a way of memorializing the 1.5 million children murdered during the Holocaust. Inspired by “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a collection of poems, letters, and drawings by children imprisoned at the Terezin Concentration Camp, the program hopes to have contemporary children from around the globe create and install 1.5 million ceramic butterflies in memory of those lost children.
Education about the Holocaust is a complex opportunity. Not only do students need to learn about the memory and historical record of the Holocaust, but educators are tasked with addressing many of the contextual challenges that are still very relevant today. Persistent antisemitism, xenophobia, and threats to our values and beliefs are all issues we face today. Holocaust education creates an opportunity to examine these problems and foster critical thinking, social awareness and responsibility, and personal empathy.
Here in Nashville in 2006, at the urging and under the leadership of local survivors, the Nashville Holocaust Memorial was erected and dedicated on donated land from the Gordon Jewish Community Center. Deborah Oleshansky, the community relations director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville, says, “The decision to add The Butterfly Project to the existing memorial was made a little over a year ago.” Collaborating with local artist and creator of the original memorial, Alex Limor, a tree was designed and installed at the start of the path leading towards the memorial. As butterflies are created, they will be installed between the tree and the memorial. Oleshansky said, “The project began with Akiva and JMS students, and the longterm plan is to expand the program and invite any and all Nashville community groups who want to participate to tour the memorial and take part in designing butterflies.” Oleshansky explains the decision to bring the project to Nashville, pointing out, “It is a means for Holocaust education, but also a way in which to teach social justice, build empathy, and ultimately combat antisemitism. The butterflies will be a visual symbol of our proactive work against bigotry and hate.”
Akiva and JMS students had the chance to sit down with Alex Limor and learn about the design and development of the Nashville Holocaust Memorial, as well as the addition of the new tree. Students each received a biography about a child who was killed during the Holocaust and created a butterfly in their memory.
Nechemya Rosenfeld teaches Holocaust Studies at Akiva School and Jewish Studies at the Jewish Middle School. Rosenfeld says that this project “served as a kinesthetic and artistic way of helping students comprehend the immensity of 1.5 million children lost. Creating their own butterflies and getting a sense of how many more need to be made to reach the 1.5 million goal was powerful. The project takes history and brings it into the present and the future.” Rosenfeld adds, “As we approach Pesach and the students learn about our responsibility to remember our history and tell it over, The Butterfly Project was a timely and ideal opportunity for our kids to take part in this mitzvah and create their own permanent reminder of our collective memory, and the hope we have moving forward.” Co-Head of School at the Jewish Middle School, Rabbi Daniel Hoffman, echoes Rosenfeld’s point, “We often learn about the horrific proportions of the Holocaust - the number of lives lost is staggering, and a number that is so hard for children to relate to. When each student received and read a name and story of one child who perished in the Holocaust, it created a moment of connection. The butterflies they painted memorialize those specific children whom our students now know, and will remember, in some small way.”
The butterflies created by Akiva and JMS students will be presented at this year’s Yom HaShoah memorial service on April 23rd, from 2:00-3:00pm at the Gordon JCC, and will be on display during the community-wide Yom HaShoah service, led by Akiva’s 6th grade class, on April 18th at 8:00am. The project will remain ongoing and anyone who is interested in participating can reach out directly to the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville for more information.