Jennifer McConnell examined a picture of Jews being rounded up during the Holocaust and asked herself who in the scene she might have been.
One of the Jews? No, the Houston high school teacher is Catholic. One of those in uniform? "I probably would not have been a Nazi," she said firmly.
"The most awful thought for me was, 'Would I have been a bystander?' " said McConnell, whose self-reflection showed the impact of "Bearing Witness," a program for Catholic school teachers that concludes today in Washington.
Sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League's Washington office, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Catholic Educational Association, the one-week course offers an examination of the Holocaust, antisemitism and the church's role in forming Catholic attitudes toward Jews.
"It's given me perspective, lenses to look at problems anew," said McConnell, one of 38 teachers chosen from Catholic high schools and middle schools nationwide for this year's program.
The course was introduced in 1996 with encouragement from the Washington Archdiocese. For the first two years, it drew teachers from local Catholic schools, said the Anti-Defamation League's regional director, David C. Freidman, but the response was so good that the sponsors decided to reach out to Catholic educators across the country.
This week, the teachers spent two days at the Holocaust museum, where they learned about the Nazi slaughter of more than 6 million Jews and received practical suggestions on how to teach their students about the genocide.
Yesterday, the teachers met at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Northeast Washington for a presentation on antisemitism by Dennis McManus, a liturgy specialist at the conference.
McManus discussed the church's historic role in fostering antisemitism and Pope John Paul II's contemporary efforts to stamp it out, including his condemnation of antisemitism in a 1997 address. The teachers were encouraged to recall their childhood attitudes toward Jews as a way of examining the roots of their own prejudice.
The group also visited Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Northwest Washington, where Associate Rabbi Mindy Portnoy met with the class and answered questions.
Several teachers said the most moving experience was meeting people at an awards ceremony Wednesday night who lived through the Holocaust.
"Sitting in a sea of survivors," said William Heidenfeldt, an eighth-grade English and religion teacher from Oakland, Calif., allowed him to feel an empathy with Jews he had not felt.
"Empathy means walking on the road together," he said, "not that I feel bad for you."
For Stacy Hennessy, meeting survivors and her "complete immersion" in learning about the Holocaust was also deeply moving, leaving her with "a sense of responsibility for what happened."
Hennessy, who teaches 10th-grade religion in Waco, Tex., said she also feels "charged to reteach Christianity so that this can never happen again."
She found the program "immensely valuable" because of the opportunities it offered to have personal contact with Jews. Commonly, she explained, there "is complete lack of mention of Jews" in Catholic homes.
"You see them, but it's like a glass wall. Never the twain shall meet. There's not a crossing over," she said. "I can't name a Catholic in my family who's been to a Shabbat service."
Despite recent changes in official church attitudes, many adult Catholics grew up hearing that Christianity and the New Testament superseded, and thus made inferior, Judaism and the Old Testament. They also were taught that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus's crucifixion--an attitude now denounced by church authorities.
As a result, "Bearing Witness" can be "a faith challenge" for some participants, said Carmen Nanko, director of campus ministry at Trinity College and one of the seminar's Catholic consultants.
The Anti-Defamation League's Freidman said he hopes the course will lay the groundwork for increasing numbers of Jews and Christians to engage in direct dialogue.