How Holocaust Education Took Jodi Elowitz From MN To Cincinnati To Working For Ohio

As Jodi Elowitz puts it, the field of Holocaust education has a habit of choosing people, whether they intended to work in it or not.

For her, that moment of choosing happened almost 30 years ago in St. Paul, where the Jewish Community Center used to host a monthly talk series with Holocaust survivors.

One night, Elowitz came to listen to Hinda Kibort, an outspoken local survivor, describe her experience growing up in Latvia and Lithuania, and surviving in a ghetto and concentration camp during the Holocaust.

“Afterwards, I went up to her and thanked her for her story,” Elowitz said. Kibort “wouldn’t let go of my hands – and I was like, ‘Oh, I guess this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my days.’”

That’s how she ended up in a career teaching about the Holocaust that brought her on a winding path to Cincinnati – and now to her new role as the director of education at the Ohio Holocaust and Genocide Memorial and Education Commission.

“It’s been a long journey to get from [the Twin Cities] to Cincinnati, but always with the Holocaust survivors in mind,” Elowitz said. “I feel like I made them a promise, to make sure that their stories are told. And I feel like I continue to fulfill that promise on a daily basis.”

Elowitz has a central role to play in a new endeavor: the Holocaust and Genocide commission was just established by the Ohio General Assembly in 2020, and formed in 2021. The commission is charged with everything from strengthening public education through grants and new programming, to advising the governor and other parts of the state government about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Elowitz sees the commission as a precursor to, perhaps eventually, Ohio joining 26 other states – including Minnesota – in having a state mandate for Holocaust and genocide education. In the meantime, she is working to standardize the education that takes place right now in Ohio.

That means connecting teachers across the state with educational institutions like the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, the Cincinnati Holocaust museum founded by the families of survivors.

“We’re not trying to recreate the wheel, we’re trying to expand on the offerings that are already out there,” Elowitz said. Building that network, which she calls the education consortium, is also about connecting with the many communities that have experienced genocide.

“We’re discovered that we have many different diverse groups that live in Ohio: Tutsis, Cambodians, Armenians, Ukrainians,” Elowitz said. She is trying to find “new ways to reach as many teachers and students that we can, but [unifying and connecting resources] so that everyone has equal access to the same materials.”

New initiatives like the Ohio commission are comfortable ground for Elowitz. Over 30 years ago, leaving a career in marketing and sales, she decided to finish an art history degree at the University of Minnesota and get to work on a masters degree.

During that time, interested in studying the Holocaust, she met Stephen Feinstein, a celebrated Eastern European and art history scholar. Feinstein had just founded the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in 1997, and invited Elowitz to work with him.

Feinstein, who died in 2008, was beloved for his sense of humor. He “was one of the people who also taught me it was okay to be yourself,” Elowitz said. “It was okay to have a sense of humor, because in order to get through this kind of topic matter on a daily basis, you have to have something that keeps you going.”

The center became a world-renowned institution in the field of genocide education, something Elowitz is proud to have been a part of. “I feel very, very fortunate that I was at the University of Minnesota at the right time, right place, right person,” she said.

From there, Elowitz worked for several years at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas heading up their Holocaust education work. Then she worked at the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, came back to the U of M center in 2010, and taught various classes in Arizona before seeing a fateful job listing based in Cincinnati.

In 2019, the Holocaust and Humanity Center was relocating to Union Terminal – a fateful match given that the iconic train station was where many Holocaust survivors took their first steps in Cincinnati. The center needed a project manager to help design and build its exhibit there.

“As soon as I saw a photo of Union Terminal [it was like], oh yeah, I want this job,” Elowitz said.

Working on the Union Terminal exhibit is “probably one of my proudest moments, obviously it’s a big undertaking to build a museum,” Elowitz said. “But not only that, to build a museum in 18 months – that was insane. But again, it was fate. We had the right people, we were in the right place at the right time.”

The exhibit, in many ways, was a culmination of the experience and knowledge Elowitz has accumulated over her career in Holocaust education. Even her past work in retail proved to be useful as she picked out carpet samples and signed off on specific light bulbs.

“The museum really does fulfill that promise” to Cincinnati’s Holocaust survivors to make sure their stories are remembered, Elowitz said. “But for me, it also fulfills the promise I made to the Minnesota survivors and the Tennessee survivors. And so I feel really like I have done what I set out to do…[but] there’s much more left to do, especially in the times we live in.”

Working at the Ohio commission comes at a unique time for the field of Holocaust education. Many educators are reassessing old approaches to teaching about genocides as studies show Americans don’t know much about the Holocaust, and Holocaust analogies and revisionism has become a cornerstone of political speech – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic really did have people going back and thinking through, you know, have we been doing the right thing?” Elowitz said. “Have we been teaching [the Holocaust] the way that it deserves to be taught?”

Revamping Holocaust and genocide education means a focus on supporting teachers, who are often overworked, underpaid, and don’t have enough time to comprehensively teach about genocide.

“If you have limited time, what are the takeaways you want your students to have from teaching the Holocaust?” Elowitz said. “That’s one of the things that my peers and colleagues have been working on is, how do we help teachers learn how to create this plan, in order to really be able to measure the success and impact this kind of education is having in their classrooms.

“The better prepared you are, the better prepared you are to have conversations and discussions with people outside the classroom,” she said. “Like if a parent challenges you, ‘Why are you teaching this to my students?’ Well, you’re ready to go: You can say, this is why we’re teaching it, this is what we hope to have come out of it. There’s nothing here to be afraid of, right? This is history.”

Elowitz has hope that the Ohio commission can craft a better way for the state to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides.

“We’re in a really fortunate position right now where we all can sit down and think about this, to create something for the future,” she said.