by Mariah Shevchuk
An army vet, a boy preparing for his bar mitzvah, a school teacher, a Puerto Rican immigrant, the child of a Holocaust survivor (among quite a few Holocaust survivors themselves), an actress, a high school student, a writer, a clothing designer. What could all these diverse people possibly have in common? A lot. They all feel the call to better not just their communities, but humankind.
Volunteers at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles come from every age, religion, profession, gender, nationality and economic status under the sun. But the beauty of a Museum such as this one is that within these walls, none of that matters. Humans are simply humans, and all are treated with the same degree of respect that such a title demands.
Twice a year, Museum of Tolerance holds a class for all new volunteers and interns that aims to introduce the difficult subjects tackled by the Museum’s permanent exhibitions. These subjects include immigration, assimilation, civil rights, American and European history, women’s rights, racism, global terrorism, and of course the Holocaust and perhaps its most famous victim, Anne Frank. The class makes time for each individual to share their experience and contextualize their motivation for joining the Museum. The overarching theme and aptly given name of the course: Social Justice.
During my summer 2014 internship at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, I’ve been fortunate to meet a multitude of people and bear witness to hundreds of different experiences. For example, Rene Firestone is a Holocaust survivor. She also is committed to educating future generations on the dangers of intolerance; her vow is manifested in her time spent documenting the stories of Rwandan genocide survivors. And Rene is but one of many—everyone who comes here to share a story or volunteer their time is committed to making the world a better and more tolerant place (and with what’s been going on in the world lately, who couldn’t use more of that?). The motivations of each individual differ, from ensuring that an atrocity like the Holocaust never happens again to wanting to be a better person to feeling obligated by family history. As intern Shoshanna Seidenfeld said on her last day at the Museum,
“Working at the Museum of Tolerance was one of the most eye-opening and inspiring experiences of my life, not only because of the crucial work that I was part of, but because of the people I did it with. Being the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I used to feel that continuing the legacy of the Holocaust was on my shoulders, and that it was my responsibility to teach and care about what had happened to my family. In the short time I was there, the Museum reminded me that there are many others who, despite being quite different from me, share my values of pursuing social justice and equality and educating the world. I felt inspired and empowered to see that the museum’s passion really is a universal one, one that draws people of all faiths and denominations to come together and work towards a greater good. Thank you MOT for restoring my faith in this generation and our ability to rise above adversity and create real change.”
Stepping through the doors of the Museum of Tolerance doesn’t automatically make you a better person. But absorbing its exhibits, interacting with a Holocaust survivor, chatting with a volunteer—spending just a few minutes engaged in activities like these can instill a sense of responsibility unlike anything else. The Museum excels at making social justice accessible to everyone- as reflected by the diversity of this singular volunteer class. Museums with social justice centered missions go hand in hand with a University of San Francisco education; the USF Museum Studies’ graduate program prepared me well with a course in Museums and Social Justice. And especially in times like today, with all the conflict in the world, it’s really important to strive for social justice for all people: remember, we’re all simply and beautifully human.