It was an incident that many in Lincoln, Neb., would prefer to forget. But Tom Kolbe is making sure that never happens.
In 1995, three teenage boys from the Goodrich Middle School in Lincoln scuttled over the fence of Mount Carmel Cemetery to disrupt the funeral of a 99-year-old Jewish man, shouting “Heil Hitler,” and spitting tobacco on the lawn.
Seven years later, Kolbe started working at Goodrich as a seventh-grade teacher. Religion is part of that grade’s traditional curriculum, but Kolbe found the material insufficient: “Those seventh graders knew little of Judaism other than the eight pages offered in the textbook on it,” said Kolbe, a self-described nonpracticing Protestant who is the son of a Protestant minister.
This past year, when Kolbe switched to the sixth grade, he decided to improve the school’s Jewish curriculum by creating a new learning unit, using the cemetery as an educational tool. So for 25 kids from the American heartland, an act of bigotry has become the inspiration for a new unit about tolerance.
Kolbe, 35, had his class adopt seven Jewish families with long histories in Lincoln, interviewing current residents and researching newspaper clippings about their deceased ancestors. The students scoured death and burial records and visited the graves at Mount Carmel, learning about the various symbols that adorn Jewish gravestones.
Because the cemetery is located kitty-corner from the school, it became a central resource. “I knew these kids had to walk past the cemetery and wonder,” Kolbe said. “I wanted them to have a connection to that cemetery.”
Richard Evnen, president of the Mount Carmel Cemetery Association, added: “Tom felt that the school had a troubling history, and he wanted to create a different association with the cemetery.”
“The thing that motivated [the kids] was responding to the three students,” said Kolbe, who created his semester-long unit this past spring with the assistance of his student teacher, Melissa Ramsour. “I told them the story to get their sense of fair and unfair riled. At the age of 12, they are ready to do something about it.”
Using the cemetery and local history to help the students make a personal connection, Kolbe then launched into other subjects to teach his kids more about Judaism. The class read the Holocaust-themed books “Number the Stars” and “Letters From Rivka,” as well as short passages from a bar mitzvah preparatory book explaining basic religious tenets. Kolbe invited Israeli musicians Yair Dalal and Erez Mounk to discuss their immigration to Israel from Iraq and to describe life in Jerusalem; they also treated the students to Middle Eastern rhythms. The week before Holocaust Remembrance Day, the students delivered speeches about Judaism on a local radio show hosted by one of Kolbe’s friends.
There is a small Jewish community in Lincoln — numbering about 700, and supporting both a Conservative and a Reform synagogue — but there are only five Jewish families with children enrolled at Goodrich, a public school with 720 students largely from blue-collar families. Though a number of his students are from Christian fundamentalist families, Kolbe said that none of the parents complained about the prolonged focus on Judaism. He plans to continue the unit with his incoming sixth-grade class.
Himself a native of Lincoln, where he attended a high school with one Jewish student, Kolbe said he always has been interested in Judaism because of his general fascination with the civil-rights movement and the large role that the Jews played in it.
“Growing up in the ’70s in Lincoln, you realize as you begin to broaden your experiences what a closed experienced you really had,” he said. “Here in the Great Plains we have a history of intolerance. In the 1920s, this was a huge Klan community.”
At the conclusion of Kolbe’s unit on Judaism, the class held a ceremony at Mount Carmel on a rainy May day. The students attended with their families, along with members of Lincoln’s Jewish community. Twenty-five Goodrich students, the males donning yarmulkes, recited the histories of the city’s early Jewish families and spoke of the importance of being informed about Jewish life.
“What we think about Mount Carmel and Jewish people in Lincoln is completely different from what we knew a few months ago,” student Anthony Ruhl said.
While the concluding ceremony was a success, the ultimate reward for Kolbe was a letter that his class received a few days before the end of the school year from one of the people involved in the 1995 antisemitic incident. “I was one of those who did that,” the letter began.
The man, now in his 20s, wrote: “It was absolutely horrifying to see it in the papers all over again… I almost couldn’t breathe.” He added: “I want to thank you for not hating me — like the hate I had shown that day. Maybe if I would have known, I would have understood.”
“It was pretty damn powerful,” said Kolbe, who offered his students the opportunity to write back on their own; 75% opted to do so. “It’s amazing how much these kids show that people can learn not to hate.”