This past Spring, former Israeli Teaching Fellow and Israeli National Men’s Lacrosse player Max Spitalnick offered a five-session lecture series to Harlem Lacrosse & Leadership students from Frederick Douglass Academy I (FDA) and P.S. 149- The Sojourner Truth School. The lectures, part of HLL’s ongoing character education and historical awareness programming, utilized stories and imagery from the Holocaust (described to the boys in terms like “Shoah”) and from the American Civil Rights movement to teach a variety of lessons to the boys.
The HLL Leadership Series, entitled “Civil Rights and the Holocaust”, served to initiate thoughtful conversations among students about the dangers of large-scale dehumanization and the importance of humanitarianism, in history and in modern societies. Many of the students – reading books like Daniel’s Story and Elie Wiesel’s Night in their public school Language Arts classes as a part of a nationwide “Genocide Awareness Month” – were ready to engage in active debates on topics relevant to the Holocaust. Few of the boys knew, however, how an entire continent could be dragged into nearly destroying an entire group of people.
In addressing these topics, boys were enlightened by honest discussions on how racist, genocidal movements could develop in everyday societies. Coach Spitalnick, using photo-diaries from his own studies abroad, showed boys the Holocaust-era Polish ghetto of Warsaw and described how physically separating people along ethnic lines helped to reinforce racist ideologies. Spitalnick related these lessons to the overall notions of minority struggle in the face of large-scale discrimination, particularly in America. Drawing on the accomplishments of both schools’ namesake historical figures (Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth), Spitalnick pushed boys to describe those characteristics that could help HLL students to break down physical and cultural barriers in their own communities.
“Who in your neighborhoods are treated like they are less than human?” asked Spitalnick. “Does it hurt their chances at getting back on their feet? What can you do to make a difference?” Many students, experienced in working at homeless shelters and in preparing meals for the hungry in Harlem, answered the query without much pause.
“When a lot of kids pass by the homeless, they think they are less than human and laugh at them,” said Mohamed Korouma, a 7th grade lacrosse player from FDA. “We need to treat them like humans. Coaches always tell us that they deserve dignity and that’s why we make meals carefully for them.”
Spitalnick, working for the American Jewish Committee in New York, volunteers his free time with Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership regularly. His constant presence at games and practices helped lay the foundation for the boys’ understanding across the series. Because of the emotional bond Spitalnick had forged using the game of lacrosse, students felt comfortable discussing such mature topics in great depth.
“We want students to be able to transcend these lessons on an event that will forever be known as a dark time in history and become ambassadors for greater cultural understanding and humanitarianism,” explained Spitalnick, who regularly tells boys tales of his days teaching and playing lacrosse in Israel. “These kids may have minimal exposure to the subject matter, but rarely are they able to cross certain lines and dive deeply into the content. We related the struggles of the Jewish community, of other minority communities, and of the African American community to struggles that many of their families face today. You could see the exact moment when it clicked for the kids invited to these lectures, and it was very special.”
The conclusion of the series brought HLL student-athletes back to the present day, focusing on current struggles and critically engaging on how they can proactively be a part of future solutions. “The world wants to put you in boxes and define you in certain terms,” said Jake Klein, HLL Program Director and middle school lacrosse coach at FDA. “If you box people off too much, it can take you down the road to evil. It is your job to open your eyes, stand in the gap, and refuse to be shut off from the world.”