Donna Amelkin, TOLI Alumna and Parkland, FL. Teacher: Coping With Tragedy and Facing New Challenges After School Shooting


When news broke in February that a shooting took place at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we quickly became aware that a 2017 New York TOLI Seminar alumna was in the school during the tragedy. Donna Amelkin, a teacher of 25 years with a Masters degree in Social Work and Family Therapy, created and teaches a popular History of the Holocaust class at the high school, split into two corresponding Holocaust literature and history classrooms. While she wasn’t teaching at the time, the history portion of the course, taught by her colleague Ivy Schamis, was shot into, killing two students.

“It was horrific, yet there’s a silver lining that I’m starting to see,” Donna remarked. The high school’s tragedy has prompted a national movement, with many of the high-profile marches led by students of Donna’s History of the Holocaust class. “On the first day of the class, I tell them, ‘you’ve now been in high school for three or four years, and I don’t think there has been one class that tries to make you a better human being’… that’s what this class is.” In her classroom, students are encouraged to make connections between the Holocaust and current, unfortunately intimately familiar events.

Donna brings in survivors to speak about their experiences and has the students learn about Jewish life preceding the Holocaust to better understand what was lost. This past week, a 93-year-old survivor from Auschwitz visited the class, accompanied by her son who works as a rabbi in the community. “He kept making connections to anything that she [his mother] said to my students, who are ‘survivors’ of the shooting. What you can do with that experience, and how to live with dignity afterwards. If you don’t want to be the kids in front of the cameras at the march, that’s ok. [He encouraged them to] take that experience and make it something that can be powerful.”

One project the class has taken on is a Meal Train for the family of one of Donna’s students, whose younger sister was killed in the shooting. She told me, “I’ve had a lot of loss and grief in my own life, and I know that if you don’t have to think about dinner, it’ll just make your day a little bit easier.” Every day at 6 o’clock, somebody from the class brings the family dinner and consoles them for their loss. “They had to ring the doorbell of this family that just lost a 14-year-old to the shooting. It just made them be more human, be more comfortable with being human. They would meet his parents, they would talk to him and hug them, and say ‘oh I’m so glad we can do this for you.’ All of them are a little bit more mature in how you deal with grief, learning to be kind even when they’re uncomfortable.” Similar meal services exist for Holocaust survivors, a small gesture to help them age in comfort and dignity. Neighbors of the family have learned about the project and expressed their desire to help, opening the class’s doors and widening its impact.

The shooting has highlighted the deadly obstacles that teachers face in performing their jobs. In contrast, when speaking about the TOLI seminar she attended in 2017, Donna said that, “last summer was the first professional development, truly in all 25 years, that I have felt the most valued as an educator.” The seminar in New York had her meet with other teachers from around the country and encourages them to think creatively and collaboratively about how they teach the Holocaust, genocide and social justice. During the seminar, they receive a $350 fellowship, free housing at Columbia University, round-trip airfare and meals provided by TOLI. “It’s how teachers should be treated,” she enthusiastically exclaimed.

Going forward, the path is uncertain. “The school feels like the twilight zone,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the fallout yet… it’s a totally new normal.” She ended our conversation saying, “I think we’ll see changes in the house and in the senate, and we have to give these kids credit for that. For starting enough of a movement to make this happen.”


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