With a Master’s degree in education, a background in theater and Judaic studies, and a passion for comparative religion and intergenerational programming, Devora Fish is building social tolerance and bringing learning to life as the Director of Education for the Tennessee Holocaust Commission. Empowering and insightful, the family educator (who has also devoted much of her life to being both a birth and end-of-life doula) “meets students where they are.” She helps teachers and students combine what they’re passionate about with the factual history of the Holocaust in order to teach lessons about ending hate, bigotry, violence and crime. Meet our inspiring new FACE of Nashville, Devora Fish.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you’re from?
I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. My dad is a conservative Rabbi, and it’s a highly Jewishly populated area, so I grew up on a street where there was one Christian family. I grew up going to a Jewish Day School, a Jewish overnight camp — Judaism sort of handed on a silver platter. I grew up in a synagogue with a lot of older adults, including the cantor, who was a survivor from Auschwitz and was one of the first ones married to his beloved, who was also a survivor. So, I grew up around survivors. However, nobody talked about the Holocaust. Back then, like in the ’80s, the survivors really didn’t talk that much about it. But what I did know is that they were some of the most generous, resilient people I’ve ever known. And so heartfelt. That was kind of my childhood.
What led up to your position as the Director of Education at the Tennessee Holocaust Commission?
Having a background in interdisciplinary education, what I created was basically a business in consulting. These are two things that have kind of been an interesting piece [in my story] — I’m a woman, and I’m not a rabbi, but I often get hired in what many people feel is sort of a male-dominated, patriarchal organization. So, I started consulting and teaching classes on creative arts in education, specifically focused on Jewish education — at the time working for camps and synagogues.
What I found is kids couldn’t stand religious school. It also expands into secular schools. It’s basically about bringing to life some of the learning, which was very dry. For me, it was about infusing arts, music, theater, dance, cooking, poetry and you name it, to figure out a way for students to find their path into the learning.
What does your job entail?
I listen all the time. That’s what I do — listen to survivors and refugees and teachers and students. And just be there for people. That’s often what this job is. But what I’m usually thinking about on a day-to-day basis is being in communication with teachers, helping them to expand curriculum, provide resources. Now, because we have so few Holocaust survivors who are able to speak — because they’ve either passed away or because physically and memory-wise, it’s difficult for them to travel and speak — I’m working a lot with the second and third generation, and beginning to understand more about the transference of trauma. You look in the eyes of the survivor, and it’s like it happened yesterday, but you can also see it in their children. So, I’m developing storytellers — crafting their stories so that they can be the stewards of the survivors or the liberators.
We do a lot in the community. We’ve got the Holocaust Lecture Series at Vanderbilt, so we bring in speakers to that. We have our own art exhibit, called Living On, that we have traveling around the states. There are also other exhibits we bring in from other Holocaust centers and museums, to be displayed at libraries, community colleges, colleges … and then we work with the Violins of Hope project that came through last year; it was the violins from the Holocaust. I’m working with the composer now, for a new piece. This is why I love this job. Again, I’m not an expert in Holocaust history, but I’m committed to the mission of it and how I can engage students. And one thing for me that has always been powerful is music. So the composer of Violins of Hope — we’re in conversations with him about developing a piece that would be used in music classrooms to engage students in the music that was kind of lost or that was developed at that time.
Though we don’t have state-mandated Holocaust education, there are certain grade levels where you have to study it. That’s where the teachers can be really instrumental because they can be creative in how they include the education … I’ve got teachers who are using it in engineering classes; it’s not just your language arts and U.S. history teachers. It is relevant to every single subject. So, teachers can utilize the resources and education and lessons that we have available, to deepen whatever it is they’re currently teaching.
Can you explain the mission of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission?
The mission itself is very clear. It is to educate Tennesseeans about the factual account of the Holocaust, in order to provide the lessons that we can all learn, as it relates to anti-semitism, bigotry, genocide, hate — let’s just end all that. So I get to wake up every day and think, How am I going to stop hate on the planet today?
I think when you have the privilege of a job like this, there’s not a question of, “Do I feel like doing a good job today?” That’s not one of the questions you get to ask yourself.
There’s the mission, and then there’s what it looks like on the ground. We have a program called the Tennessee Holocaust Commission Teacher Fellows. These are dedicated teachers across the state of Tennessee. I’ve never met teachers with more passion for this work. On their own, they have developed themselves as Holocaust and genocide educators, and they bring that to their classrooms in rural parts of Tennessee and build compassion and tolerance and understanding and resiliency and stand-up citizens. That’s what these teachers do every single day, and I live for them because they are extraordinary.
Can I also be crystal clear that the Holocaust Commission … we are not a Jewish organization. It’s very important to make sure people know this is an educational program. It’s pluralistic, not religious. We are part of the Tennessee Legislative Education Program. Even though this separate office is in a synagogue (it happens that they have a good photocopy machine and parking), it’s really important that people recognize we work with law enforcement, hospitals, and schools. Because the most important thing is that Tennesseeans know they have a place they can turn to when they have questions about restorative justice and how they can teach these lessons of tolerance. Some people think that it’s a Jewish organization. I’m Jewish, and there’s a huge connection with the Jewish community, but this is not intended to be Jewish lesson.
What challenges do you face?
I’ve had to do a lot of legwork in conversations with schools and organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish, about being more mindful about differences, whether it’s cultural, religious, gender identity — all of these things. There’s certainly a lot to explore around all of that … it’s a challenging role to play, sometimes, to be able to speak up and shift perceptions.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My grandfather, my zayde, he would say to always be a mensch. Wherever you are, whatever opinion you have about anybody, you can always say, “Good morning,” and you can always end the day saying, “Good evening.”
Aside from faith, friends and family, what are three things you can’t live without?
A really good neck pillow, a full tank of gas (there’s nothing more freeing) and “The Muppets.” I can’t live without “The Muppets.” I would be a Muppet if I could be anything in the world.
Thank you, Devora, for the work you’re doing. And thank you to Leila Grossman for the photos!
He’s seen tremendous changes in mental health since he began his career nearly two decades ago. Dr. Roy Asta shares some of that insight as well as some of the best advice he can offer for how to manage stress during the holidays. Meet our newest FACE of TriStar, Dr. Roy Asta of TriStar Skyline Medical Center. Click HERE.