by Sherrie Saag, Communications Specialist, Jewish Federation of Omaha
Liz Feldstern, the new Executive Director of the Institute for Holocaust Education (IHE), arrived in Omaha just six weeks ago to fill some very big shoes: replacing native Omahan Beth Dotan, who has moved to Israel.
In a somewhat ironic twist, Feldstern moved here from Israel. During her 8 1/2 years in Jerusalem, she earned her master’s degree in Conflict Management and Resolution from Hebrew University and worked as the Foreign Relations Coordinator for the Israel Center for Excellence through Education. While pursuing her degree, she conducted extensive research on the displaced persons camps that housed Holocaust survivors in the years immediately following World War II.
In her professional role, she planned educational programming for thousands of students in Israel, India, Singapore and the U.S., and coordinated teacher training and professional seminars for more than 200 teachers annually.
It is the melding of her research and scholarship in Holocaust studies with her educational expertise that makes her uniquely qualified to head the Institute for Holocaust Education.
Gloria Kaslow has chaired the IHE’s Governance Council since its inception. “From our very first Skype interview, I felt that Liz understood and respected the Institute’s mission to share Holocaust history through the arts, school and community programs and continuing education for teachers. Her particular interest in and knowledge of World War II displaced persons camps should provide the IHE an exciting new avenue of education to explore.”
Feldstern grew up a New Jersey girl with a broad perspective. Her mother is Jewish, her late father was Catholic. Her parents chose to raise their children in a multi-faith, multi-cultural home, and the family celebrated every type of holiday, even the Chinese New Year. In fact, her mother likes to say she was weaned right on to Chinese food as an infant, and it is still a favorite today.
Feldstern is the oldest of three siblings, and after her father passed away when she was ten years old, her mother returned to her Jewish roots and enrolled her kids in Hebrew school; even hiring private tutors so they could catch up to their classmates. She was president of her United Synagogue Youth (USY) chapter in high school and went on to become a USY youth director. As a counselor on USY on Wheels trips in 2001 and 2002, Feldstern met two men who would later change the course of her life. On the first trip, it was Rabbi Steven Abraham of Beth El Synagogue and on the second, her future husband, Yonatan.
Rabbi Abraham commented, “Liz and I have been dear friends for the past eleven years, since we met at USY on Wheels. I could not be happier to have Liz, Yonatan and their fantastic children join us in Omaha. She is an incredibly bright and compassionate person who will be a valuable asset to our community.”
To give readers a sense of Feldstern’s drive, determination and moxie, consider this: Engaged at age 20 to a man recently released from the Israeli army and living 6000 miles away, she graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University while planning her wedding and moved to Israel three days after the ceremony!
Feldstern’s two children, Yishai, 3 1/2, and Gila, 2, are happily transitioned into the Pennie Z. Davis Child Development Center. She says they enjoyed their first snowfall and are entranced with squirrels, since there are none in Israel; the closest comparison being the city’s large population of cats.
Asked to comment on the current state of affairs at the IHE, Feldstern said this juncture came at a good time. “All of the IHE programming is functional, financially sound, and we are reaching our target audiences. The groundwork has been laid to expand our reach and I have several ideas I am really excited about.”
“For example, our distance learning technology has great potential. A pilot program in February brought survivor testimony to schools in Hawaii that would otherwise not have access to this educational tool. It was a great success,” she added. A second priority is to address the importance of secon generation survivors. Their stories are as compelling as those of their parents. Their unique stories and personal experiences are garnering national and international attention. Feldstern says the second generation survivors in the Omaha community have approached the IHE and are eager to document their experiences. “The IHE will facilitate the record keeping once we determine what form it will take. Omaha will soon be in a position to have this vital information preserved for its historical significance,” she said.
Kaslow added, “I noticed right away that Liz possessed a special sensitivity to the needs of survivors and has already begun to cultivate relationships with our own community of Survivors. In the short time she has been here, she has fit seamlessly into our organization and into the life and work of our Jewish community.”
“Liz was quick to grasp the importance and value of the IHE’s role in our community. I am looking forward to partnering with her on many projects,” commented Alan Potash, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League Plains States Region.
For more information on the IHE’s current work, new initiatives and upcoming programming, contact Feldstern at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402.334.6575.