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A hands-on lesson in tolerance

May 24, 2004

To grow up means that one has to be steady enough to agree to take responsibility for the time and space that one occupies.
-- Maya Angelou

Like everything else in life, summer vacation is all about choices.  And since we’re Americans, we’re lucky enough to have many choices available to us.

What do we want to get out of summer vacation?  Most of us would say relaxation, fun, some meaningful time with family, memories to keep.

When going to California, it’s great fun to strap on mouse ears and ride rides, enriching a fabulously wealthy and frighteningly pervasive corporation with your family’s hard-won disposable income in the process.  But if you have another day or a different inclination, and if your children are in fifth grade or older, try visiting Los Angeles’s Museum of Tolerance.  (There’s also one in New York City.)

It’s not everyone’s idea of how to spend a vacation, but for families interested in broadening their horizons and learning about the world, it might be just the ticket.  It’s not a Holocaust museum per se, although there’s lots to learn about the Holocaust there; the museum also focuses on racism and prejudice in America.

While at the MOT, you can visit the Point of View Diner.  This diner has a main counter and bar stools, booths and little individual “jukeboxes” that are actually video screens.  No food is served; instead, short videos are shown depicting situations from our culture’s landscape –- family dynamics, hate speech, drunken driving, how we treat those whom we perceive as different.  Then everyone is invited to enter their opinion about what they’ve seen and the entire diner’s results are instantly tabulated and shown to all the participants.

The Millenium Machine exhibit looks like a game show set, but visitors can stop by to learn about world problems like the exploitation of women and children, terrorism, refugees and political prisoners.  It’s a memorable learning tool that everyone, including children, found engaging when I visited.

In Ain’t You Gotta Right, visitors can watch civil rights movement-era footage on a 16-screen video wall, and at In Our Time, visitors learn about human rights and contemporary hate groups around the world.

In the interesting exhibit Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves, well-known Americans’ family stories are told.  Your kid is going to know of someone whose family is depicted here -- Michele Kwan, Billy Crystal, Steve Young, Carlos Santana, Maya Angelou.  Visitors are encouraged to discover their own family history, identify their own heroes and seek out their own mentors.

Upon entering the MOT, everyone is given a different photo card with the story of a child who was alive during the Holocaust.  At various points on the tour, the child’s story is updated and at the end, the ultimate fate of the child is told.  Visitors can print a free copy of the child’s story to take home.

When I was there, I also heard the heartbreaking account of a holocaust survivor.  She was there in person, a Los Angeles woman who comes to the museum regularly to tell her story.  During the question session, someone asked what motivates her to volunteer to retell her story over and over.  She said she was concerned about the influence of wrong-headed people who insist that the Holocaust didn’t happen.  She said someday there will be no one left alive who actually experienced the Holocaust and, when that time comes, she wants at least one more generation of people who can say, “I know it happened; I met someone who was there.”  At the end of her presentation, she invited us to come and touch the number tattooed on her arm.

The MOT also has periodically-changing interactive sections on topics like racial profiling, women in Muslim culture, how Jackie Robinson changed America, the former Yugoslavia, and the children of Rwanda.

In the museum’s shop, I picked up Elie Wiesel’s Night.  It’s the account of Wiesel’s time at Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna and Buchenwald as a 15-year-old prisoner; it would be a good reminder of the day for a 15-year-old visitor to take home.  Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the author of more than 25 books, is the kind of person your kids can learn about at the museum.

Visiting the Museum of Tolerance is not the downer you might be picturing.  A few hours there might just encourage your children to involve themselves in matters of truth and justice, freedom and human dignity.  The messages are inspirational and visitors take away many stories of bravery, integrity, kindness, charity and hope.  Children will inevitably notice that they’re very lucky to have the lives they have.  Plus, for those few hours, they won’t be getting sunburned or bugging you for money.

The museum is open Sunday through Friday and closed on U.S. and Jewish holidays.  The Web site, http://www.museumoftolerance.com, has teachers’ guides and information families can use to continue the experience after the visit.  You can even top off your day at nearby Factor’s for a reasonably priced Jewish deli meal.  If you’re not going to California (or New York City) anytime soon, take a look at the museum’s Web site -- it’s a vast collection of information any school kid is going to be glad to have and any caring adult should want to read.

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Barb Guy is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City.

 

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