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Sarasota Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 5 months ago

School, temple partner on Holocaust education

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Gulf Gate fifth grade students will plant a Holocaust remembrance garden as part of the Daffodil Project.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

When most people plant a garden, they choose their flowers based on look or smell, but soon, students at Gulf Gate Elementary School will plant a garden to help carry a legacy.

Fifth grade students will plant  250 daffodils as a part of the Daffodil Project, a global mission to create a living Holocaust memorial.

The project aims to plant 1.5 million daffodils worldwide in memory of the children who died in the Holocaust and in support of children suffering in humanitarian crises today.

So far, 607,000 bulbs have been planted across the world. And 250 more will soon be added in Sarasota, thanks to Gulf Gate teacher Michelle Portnow Rivas.

Portnow Rivas regularly teaches the Holocaust through literature, so her fifth grade students aren’t scared of the content but can still grasp it. The students read books including “Wonder,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Butterfly.”

She’s also partnered with the Booker VPA to put on plays for her students and scheduled conversations with local Holocaust survivors.

Portnow Rivas said she first heard of the Daffodil Project when a student visited a Holocaust museum and brought her a bracelet and a pamphlet about the project.

“I looked it up, and you can see on a map that they’re planted all over the world,” Portnow Rivas said. “And I just thought we had to be a part of that mission.”

The Daffodil Project, which is based in Atlanta, sends 250 daffodil bulbs to be planted with the promise that another 250 will be planted the following year.

When Portnow Rivas decided she wanted to participate in the project, she knew she’d need some help. So she asked Bethany Leinweber, Temple Sinai’s director of youth education, outreach and engagement, for some help.

Leinweber said Temple Sinai’s middle school students always have a segment of Holocaust education, and the project was a great way to get them involved. The temple will participate in the education portion and donate funds to help with the garden.

Leinweber said the project is a great way to teach children about the significance of the Holocaust and why it’s important to remember those who died as a result.

“I think as Jews, we grow up feeling like if we don’t remember, it can happen again, or people will forget,” Leinweber said. “A huge Jewish value is to keep the memory of someone as a blessing. So all those who perished, their memories are blessings to us, so we should share their stories and keep their memories alive.”

Portnow Rivas, who is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors on both sides of the family, agreed.

Her paternal grandfather was placed in the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland and was able to survive because he painted portraits of the Nazi soldiers’ wives and girlfriends. Her maternal grandparents fled into the forests in Siberia.

A plaque is given to every participant of the Daffodil Project so people know what the garden is for. Photo courtesy Michelle Portnow Rivas

Although she regularly tells her own children stories of her family’s survival, she wants non-Jewish children to hear stories and have a comprehensive knowledge of the Holocaust and its affect.

“It’s so important to spread these stories around, so children can understand, at least a little bit, just how much this has affected us,” Portnow Rivas said. “My true mission is teaching tolerance and being aware of all of our differences and accepting everybody regardless.”

Around 60 square feet at Gulf Gate will be dedicated to the garden. An art piece will be added to denote what the garden is for. Leinweber said Temple Sinai might consider creating its own Daffodil Project in the future.

Portnow Rivas hopes to unveil the garden Jan. 27, which is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. She’d hoped to have the Temple Sinai students join her students for the unveiling, but with COVID-19 restrictions, she might have to record the unveiling instead.

However it happens, Portnow Rivas said she’s proud to play a small role in continuing a legacy.

“So many survivors are now so much older, and they’re dying,” Portnow Rivas said. “I just feel that it’s so important to carry their legacies and their stories on.”

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