In addition to its outreach to Poles and Jews, and other friends, in the United States, Friends of the Forum works closely with Forum for Dialogue, a Warsaw-based NGO, to build bridges and dialogue between Poles and Jews.
Forum for Dialogue has created a remarkably effective model for inter-group dialogue, bridge-building and education that might represent a new standard for effective intervention and interaction.
Its School of Dialogue program creates a link between Polish high-school students and middle-school students and the onetime Jewish residents of their towns. Originating with educational initiatives that Forum developed in Warsaw, and implemented in Warsaw schools, School of Dialogue has now reached more than 200 schools in over 130 towns.
While School of Dialogue is still implemented in many Warsaw high schools, the smaller towns selected by Forum as candidates for the school are often former shtetls that have no Jews and practically no Jewish memory. While Polish/Jewish history can be a challenging topic, Forum has found a way to make it both compelling and life-changing for students.
Part of the program’s success flows from Forum’s development of its own school for educators, usually Warsaw University students. Forum’s education team recruits students to run the School of Dialogue programs, with about nine applicants for each position. Often, their facilitative approach to education is a welcome and new alternative to the rote learning still common in many schools.
School of Dialogue is implemented differently in each school, as Forum’s educators work to make the program most meaningful and impactful for the specific students at their school. After four days of classroom work and substantial extracurricular engagement between the students and their parents, grandparents, local officials, etc., the students present their final assignment in the form of a tour.
Students sometimes invite the town council, parents, television and newspaper correspondents or other students as they show their fellow townspeople a city that almost none of them knows. The tour presents the town, and the Jewish life of the town, as they existed just before World War II.
One remarkable aspect of this program is that, while School of Dialogue is not a Holocaust education course, the students become much more aware of and sensitive to the Holocaust through their participation. Part of this change might result from the fact that students “meet” the people who perished, rather than memorizing statistics. Equally important, they are connecting with people who lived near them, not in a faraway town.
After the students complete their School of Dialogue program, each school has the opportunity to develop a presentation to submit for Forum’s annual awards program in Warsaw each January. At this program, approximately 1,200 students will receive praise for their work from such officials as the U.S. Ambassador, Israeli Ambassador, Chief Rabbi of Poland, National Education officials and others. For many, it will be the first time they are in Warsaw and the only time in their lives they will meet such an important roster of leaders.
No school is required to participate in this competition, but essentially every school does. For the past two years, the “gala” has been held at the National Opera House in Warsaw, one of the nation’s largest and finest venues. The National Opera donates the space for this event. The 2015 gala was held under the “honorary patronage” of Bronisław Komorowski, then President of the Republic of Poland.
In 2015, Forum expanded its interaction with students by opening its first Summer School of Dialogue, bringing together student leaders from many of the School of Dialogue sites for additional in-depth studies and leadership training.
Forum has also developed a Leaders of Dialogue program that brings together local leaders and activists who are involved in research, preservation of Jewish sites or memory, promotion of Jewish culture, and other relevant activities. The 2015 Leaders of Dialogue program brought 40 local leaders together to share ideas and make important connections. Often, these local activists have been unaware of others doing similar work, even if the others live in nearby towns. As with the School of Dialogue gala, the Leaders of Dialogue conference receives “honorary patronage” of major officials.
For more information on Forum’s activities, visit their website: http://www.dialog.org.pl/en/