In the beginning: The story of Holocaust education in Rhode Island


Today, the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center (SBHEC) is a well-established organization known throughout Rhode Island for using the lessons of the Holocaust to educate about the dangers of hate, discrimination and indifference. But, like many big successes, the SBHEC came from humble beginnings.

Arthur Robbins has been deeply involved in the SBHEC since the beginning, and recently shared some recollections of the early days.

“Back in early 1981, I was friendly with Ray Eichenbaum. Ray and Lenka Rose had an idea of creating a Holocaust memorial,” Robbins began.

“Ray had a meeting at the headquarters of the Rhode Island Heritage Center, which was located in the old Rhode Island State Offices on Benefit Street, to think about building a Holocaust memorial in Providence in March of 1981. After that meeting, Ray and Lenka met again to solidify in their own minds just what they wanted to do,” he continued.

They called Robbins and Rabbi Gerald Zelermyer about creating a committee to investigate “something to honor the survivors of the Holocaust.”

On April 30, 1981, a meeting was held and a committee was formed with Eichenbaum, Rose, Robbins, Zelermyer, Jason Cohen, Sam Kesterman, Louie Rubenstein, Peter Bardack and Mike Fink. At that meeting, they batted around various ideas for the memorial. 

The committee reconvened in May 1981 at the Providence Marriott, with Manfred Weil, Herman Selya, Bert Bernhardt, Peter Bardack, Stan Abrams, Richard Licht, Robbins, Eichenbaum and Rose in attendance. At that meeting, they decided to create, as Robbins describes it, “a living Holocaust education center with four elements.” Those elements were to be an education exhibit, a resource library, an outreach program and a central focal point that people could visit. Robbins became the chair of the Site Selection committee.

Today the SBHEC is housed in the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, but at first they “had a devil of a time trying to determine where the center would be located,”  Robbins recalled. But one thing they were sure of: they wanted a prominent spot in Providence that would serve as a broad-based point for the public to come and learn about the Holocaust.

Initially, they thought that the center should be housed on the Brown University campus.  They approached Jacob Neusner, who was then the director of the Judaic Studies Program at Brown. But after much negotiation, it became clear that this would not be possible.

They then looked on the campus of the Rhode Island School of Design, but there was no suitable building available.

Finally, the committee decided that the best site would be what was then the Jewish Community Center, on Elmgrove Avenue in Providence. They met numerous times throughout 1981 and 1982 at Peter Bardack’s house to continue planning.

As Robbins tells it, “Mr. Bardack was a Holocaust survivor and, along with Ray and Lenka, who were the two dynamos of the whole organization, little by little the group coalesced and took a location on the bottom floor of the JCC.”

After many meetings, organizing and fundraising, the community dedication for what was then known as the Rhode Island Holocaust Memorial Museum was held on May 5, 1988. A reminder of that day still stands on the grounds of the Dwares JCC: The committee commissioned sculptor Barney Zeitz to create a sculpture, which was unveiled at the dedication and stands in the Holocaust Memorial Garden. That sculpture “was the center of our community’s Yom ha-Shoah annual commemoration for many years,” Robbins recalled.

Growing up during World War II, Robbins, of Providence, had an intimate understanding of the Holocaust and a deep desire to see a memorial come to fruition.

“When I look at what we created today, I say thank God we had people like Lenka and Ray, who pushed us forward,” he said.

Robbins is a lifetime member of SBHEC’s Board of Directors and he marvels at how the organization has come of age and is a major entity in the Jewish community.

“The main thrust of the organization has always been education, and when we started, we could never have imagined what it has become.”

He is particularly impressed with the amount of outreach SBHEC has done with Catholic schools. The founders also never conceived of the participation of people from outside the Jewish community, such as Providence College professors Judith Jameison and Arthur Urbano, and Cranston educator Barbara Wahlberg. In the early days, Robbins said he never thought it possible that “someday there would be Christians on our board that cared so deeply about Holocaust education.”

Over the years, Robbins has been involved with many organizations in the Jewish community, and the community at large, but one of the things of which he is most proud is how SBHEC has forged deep relationships with the Catholic and Armenian communities. He thinks that the Rhode Island law mandating Holocaust and genocide education for all Rhode Island middle and high school students is a remarkable achievement that the founders never could have imagined

Reflecting on this 37-year journey, Robbins said, “You know, you only travel this road once, and when I look back on 1981 and see what we have today, and what we’ve done bringing many people together, it’s incredible.”

He likens that early effort to “planting a seed, an acorn that puts down roots and grows into a beautiful tree with branches spreading in many directions.”  

LEV POPLOW is a communication consultant writing on behalf of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. He can be reached at