When Beth Lilach addressed a record number of attendees at an event she organized at the Holocaust Museum & Tolerance Center in October, she had just started speaking when she paused to fight back tears.
Lilach, senior director of education and community affairs at the Center, was choking up as she spoke about events which she has studied for 23 years. Two decades of hyper-exposure to the Holocaust's atrocities haven't jaded her; it is a history she can feel, she said, especially when survivors visit to share their stories.
"To be with people of historical value -- it's not just history any more," said Lilach.
Since arriving at her position in 2007, Lilach has headed the organization's education arm. She puts the "Tolerance Center" in the Holocaust Museum & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, connecting black-and-white photographs to present-day examples of people mistreating people.
The Center's programs have an impact. One involving Nassau County police recruits was voluntarily attended by the department's top brass, and subsequently extended in its scope to reach members "at all levels," Lilach said.
Suffolk County followed suit in the wake of the 2008 murder of Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, a hate crime. Among the sweeping changes the County's government reacted with was the mandated participation of all police cadets and commanders.
In her office, Lilach retrieved a book titled "Ordinary Men." It details the transformation of German policemen from professional stewards of law enforcement to members of the Einsatzgruppen, the roving Nazi death squads whose duty it was to find and kill Jews in German-occupied territories.
Lilach is tasked with teaching officers-to-be how to recognize the invisible line where state-endowed authority can morph into abuse of fellow human beings. The lessons affect different people differently, she said. Some show emotion as genocide is examined; others listen quietly. If she detects the stone wall of prejudice, she reports her concern to the officer's commander.
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Another of Lilach's programs involves military personnel, started three years ago in cooperation with U.S. Marine LtCol Gregory Wynn.
Wynn, who lives in Glen Cove, stopped by one day to see what the Center was all about. He met Lilach, and the two collaborated on a way to get his ROTC midshipmen some deeper history lessons.
"Initially, I wanted students to get out of the classroom. They learn about World War II but not the Holocaust," Wynn said. "That evolved into an ethical decision-making symposium for future officers."
Lilach is aware that she is sometimes talking wartime horror with young people who have seen it firsthand. Some attendees are active-duty sailors and Marines training to become officers. Her purpose, she explained, is to help prepare them to know what to do in high-pressure situations, and to know how to avoid and manage problems.
At each presentation, Lilach shows a photo of a U.S. Marine sniper unit posing with a flag bearing the lightning bolt emblem of the Nazi "SS." She said the image represents the danger of forgetting history's truths, and of idolizing strength over morality.
"The impact's been pretty profound," Wynn said of the program. "You can see it when [students] meet one of the Holocaust survivors, and then they meet one of the liberators."
He called Lilach "the personality of the place," an educator skilled at bringing historical lessons home.
"I think she has the ability not just to think and instruct, but to make it personal. She makes the anguish of the Holocaust real," Wynn said.
Lilach designs events which examine intolerance toward various groups, in recent history or the present. When the Holocaust is revisited, Lilach finds stories to tell that haven't been heard. Last year, an exhibit of Ludovit Feld; a tiny man and artist who survived Dr. Joseph Mengele's atrocities at Auschwitz and saved 15 children's lives.
In October, a presentation on an Iranian diplomat who saved hundreds of lives under the nose of the Nazis in Paris. The stories tackle multiple prejudices: a dwarf whose humanity and courage were insurmountable; a Muslim from Iran who exemplified his culture's spirit of tolerance. The latter story comes at a time when many Americans hear of Iran only in the context of hostility and anti-Semitism, and the prospect of war with that country is tossed around as tough talk in political campaigns.
Bullying is another current issue the Center works against. Sarah Cushman, director of youth education, oversees a monthly Upstander Award recognizing young people who are proactive in combating intolerance among their peers.
Cushman, who is not Jewish and has no family connection to the Holocaust, said she has always been drawn to why and how people oppress each other.
"What happens is, people are making decisions in the spur of the moment without thinking about the consequences of what they are doing," she said.
Cushman's job is to devise ways to teach young people what to do in those moments, and to not be startled into powerlessness.
"Our focus is on the bystander. That's a tremendous amount of power we try to shift away from the aggressor and toward the person who's been targeted," said Cushman.
She said young people are most effective at communicating with other young people, and it is with them that real change happens. As the Glen Cove School District implements the state's Dignity Act mandates to fight bullying, Cushman explained that the Center's role is to work from the other end.
"Law changes administrative policies. Our programs change the culture of the school," she said.
Teaching tolerance to improve the human condition is a passion for Cushman and Lilach. Their work's gravity is reinforced by the grainy images of wanton aggression and hate that line the halls downstairs from their offices.
"I can look at pictures I've seen a thousand times, and see an expression on a child's face, and..." Lilach shook her head. "When the time comes when I stop becoming emotional completely, I have to leave the field."
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