New program will send 85,000 8th graders to NYC’s Holocaust museum to curb spike in antisemitism


(New York Jewish Week) – New York City will send tens of thousands of students to Manhattan’s Holocaust museum as the city and its school system grapple with a surge in antisemitism since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

Under the new initiative, 85,000 eighth graders from public and private school will visit the Museum of Jewish Heritage over the next three years, starting in the fall. That’s in addition to the 40,000 students from fifth through 12th grade who already visit the museum each year. 

After three years, it will then expand to bring all eighth graders to the museum. Last year, the city’s public school system had roughly 73,000 eighth graders, with tens of thousands more in private schools.

It’s the latest bid by New York officials to use museum visits, and Holocaust education in particular, to fight hate. In response to a surge in antisemitism several years ago, the city arranged tours of the Museum of Jewish Heritage for eighth and 10th grade public school students from three heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods. 

Last year, the museum began running tours for students from the City University of New York system, which has been roiled by antisemitism allegations. New York State also mandates Holocaust education for public school students.

Meanwhile, another pilot program will send thousands of city public school students to a Jewish museum in Brooklyn. 

“We can’t just say hate has no harbor,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which covers NYC public school teachers, said at a press conference Thursday morning at the museum. 

“We know that, but we’re fighting against TikTok and social media and 30-second videos,” Weingarten said. “This is why educators say, ‘OK, what’s the next step?’ And the next step is education.”

The Museum of Jewish Heritage recently took steps to engage younger visitors. The museum’s current featured exhibition, called “Courage to Act: Rescue in Denmark”, opened in October and is geared toward visitors as young as 9. It tells the story of the persecution and efforts to save Jews in Denmark in 1943.

The program announced Thursday will cost $2.5 million, and is funded by a $1 million grant from the Gray Foundation, which funds programs for New York City youth and Jewish causes. The foundation, founded by Jon Gray, the president of the investment firm Blackstone, and his wife Mindy, has supported the museum since 2016, providing $25,000 in 2023, according to tax filings. 

The remaining $1.5 million will come from the museum, which plans to hire more staff to accommodate the increase in visits and provide transportation for students. The visits will be free for schools.

New York City Councilmember Julie Menin speaks at a press conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, May 23, 2024. (Luke Tress)

New York City Councilmember Julie Menin speaks at a press conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, May 23, 2024. (Luke Tress)

The program was spearheaded by City Councilmember Julie Menin, who represents the Upper East Side. Menin’s grandfather was killed by the Nazis, and her mother and grandmother survived the Holocaust. She said classroom lessons were not sufficient to teach students about the Holocaust. 

“We know that oftentimes students are not learning in the way they should about the Holocaust,” Menin said at the event. She cited a 2020 survey that showed widespread ignorance about the Holocaust among young Americans, in addition to rising antisemitism.

“You simply cannot learn about the Holocaust from a textbook,” she said. “You need to viscerally see and hear the stories and materials that are on display in this exhibition.” 

Menin proposed the initiative after Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, which sparked the Israel-Hamas war as well as a spike in antisemitism in New York City. Between the start of October and the end of March, Jews were the victims of 62% of all hate crimes, according to NYPD data. New York City Public Schools Chancellor David Banks said in a statement that out of 281 religious bias incidents in city schools since Oct. 7, 42% were antisemitic. 

“This is a moment where hate is rearing its head and we have to stand up,” Banks said at the event. “We have to stand up as New Yorkers, we have to stand up as Americans, we have to stand up as good people.”

There have been several high-profile incidents of antisemitism in the school system, including a chaotic protest targeting a Jewish teacher at Hillcrest High School in Queens, Banks’ alma mater, in November. Banks testified before Congress earlier this month in a hearing about antisemitism in the school system.

The school system announced other measures to counter antisemitism in January, including additional training for faculty, clearer disciplinary guidelines and engagement with faith communities.

Thursday’s event was also attended by the leaders of the UJA-Federation of New York and Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and the chair of the City Council’s Jewish Caucus, Eric Dinowitz.

In a separate initiative announced on Wednesday, Banks said thousands of students will visit the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, starting in September. A couple thousand students have visited the museum — located in the Chabad-Lubavitch community of Crown Heights and focused on teaching children about Jewish history and culture —  since Banks became chancellor, he said at an annual gala at the museum. New York City Public Schools did not immediately respond to a request for further details.

“The only antidote to antisemitism is education,” Banks said at the Brooklyn event. “You cannot discipline your way to acceptance. You can only do that with love, with education.”

The Jewish Children’s Museum program aims to teach students about the “full breadth of the Jewish experience,” he said. “You have to expose young people so that they understand who the Jewish people are and the contributions that they’ve made, not only to New York City and not only to America but to the world.”