I am the Director of the Goodwin Holocaust Museum and Education Center (GHMEC) in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. We are the only Holocaust Museum in the state. I started here about sixteen years ago as a volunteer. Our museum is located in the Jewish Community Center (JCC) building, but we are actually an independent organization that is part of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey (JCRC). The mission of the JCRC and the GHMEC is to help make all groups feel safe and accepted in our community, and to eliminate hatred and prejudice in our community. Dear Esther is just one of the many educational tools we use to achieve these important goals.
When Dear Esther was first written, both of Esther’s sons, Abe and Marvin, were living in Cherry Hill. It was only natural to have the first New Jersey performances of the play in the Cherry Hill community. Once my associates and I saw the impact that Dear Esther had on students, there was no question that we had to continue hosting performances. The play touches on so much more than just the history of the Holocaust and raises important issues for students to think about and for teachers to use as discussion starters.
I think that students respond so positively to Dear Esther because the play is so honest. It shows the doubts and fears that Esther faced and, more importantly, it portrays her strength and compassion—despite all the horrors and tragedies she encountered. The play teaches students to never give up hope. And it seamlessly weaves into historical events the contemporary problems that confront today’s students. They learn from Esther’s reflections.
I have never kept a tally of how many students have seen the play hosted by the GHMEC. We have been offering the play to schools for about fifteen years. Each year, the number of performances varies. There have been years that we have had as many as seven performances during the school year and other years that we’ve had only three. I would say that we have easily reached well over 50,000 students.
The several thousand “Dear Esther” letters that these students have written to Esther over the last fifteen years give voice to the impact she has had on their lives. They say she teaches them never to compromise their beliefs, and to be aware of the evils of hatred and prejudice. I even remember hearing from a teacher about a former troubled high school student who returned to tell him that seeing Dear Esther inspired him to change his life. This is why I love the new book, Children’s Letters to a Holocaust Survivor: Dear Esther. It shows—in the students’ own words—how they have been touched by Esther’s story and motivated to change their behaviors and attitudes toward others.
I am blessed. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many Holocaust survivors, concentration camp liberators, and an amazing team of volunteers. Together we’ve seen the incredible impact that our educational programs have had on students, teachers, and community members. This has motivated all of us to work even harder to reach as many people as possible through the history and lessons of the Holocaust.