Former Holocaust center leader reflects on education and the future

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Not many people can say they have touched as many parts of the Rhode Island Jewish community as has May-Ronny Zeidman.

From her years at the Women’s Division of the then Jewish Federation of Rhode Island to her tenure as the head of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center (SBHEC), in Providence, she’s put her energy into Jewish causes.

“I can’t work for a cause I don’t believe in,” Zeidman said.

The native Rhode Islander started out as a volunteer, worked for State of Israel Bonds when there was a Providence office, worked at United Way, briefly wrote a column for The Jewish Voice, and even had a beauty salon business. All while remaining an active volunteer.

In October, after 16 years at the Holocaust center, she stepped down as its executive director to launch into retirement. The SBHEC board of directors recently hired Wendy Joering as the new executive director.

“It’s time for the agency to have new eyes and a new vision,” Zeidman, 77, said in a recent interview.

“I believe in Holocaust education, I believe in genocide education. Any group of people who have been murdered just because they could be need to be remembered,” she said.

Zeidman said that the volunteers who started Providence’s Holocaust center were a “dedicated group” that worked with two groups of survivors. One group wanted a memorial and one sought Holocaust education. People in both groups had been through terrible times. And both groups were entitled to have what they wanted. So one group focused on what became the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, while the other built the Holocaust memorial in downtown Providence.

Around the world, more than 370 organizations are affiliated with the Association of Holocaust Organizations, a network for the advancement of Holocaust education, remembrance and research.

But, Zeidman said, “Holocaust centers rely on survivors, or children of survivors, to tell the stories. We have a very small window. Holocaust centers have got to find a way to stay in business.

“I want to see our Holocaust center expand their mission. They say ‘never again,’ but what does that mean? Anti-Semitism has got to be added to the mission. The mission has to change to include something else. To me, it has to be fighting anti-Semitism.”

“I had three goals for my work,” she continued. “I wanted the Holocaust center to be attractive and visible. And it is, with thanks to the Bornsteins [Sandra and Richard]. I wanted Holocaust and genocide education taught in schools. The law was passed. I wanted to have an endowment that financially shored up the agency. It’s the endowment that keeps the place going.”

During her tenure, the Holocaust center’s endowment grew to over $2 million, Zeidman said.

“I want people to know that I had 16 years working with wonderful people and they were always good and kind and generous to me. I have nothing but good memories,” she said.

Zeidman who admits that she gets bored easily, said she plans to continue to volunteer and to spend time with family. She has three adult sons and six grandchildren. She also will continue the needlework projects that she loves. So far, that includes approximately 15 embroidered tablecloths, countless tallit bags and too many needlepoint projects to count.

All that, plus a blog where she reflects on family and writes about life stories. If you’d like to be put on the list to receive the blog, contact her at zeidman323@gmail.com

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.