Essay winner

The 2022 Herb Goldberg Moral Courage Essay Contest winners, from left to right, Matthew Maledon, Avery Shafron and Alisa Velasquez.

When Matthew Maledon was in middle school, he studied the Holocaust. He read textbooks and memoirs, in addition to visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on a family trip. Fast forward a few years and 17-year-old Maledon is one of the three Arizona high school students to be awarded scholarships in the annual Herb Goldberg Moral Courage Essay Contest.

The contest, open to all Arizona high schoolers, is a project of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Arizona’s No Place for Hate program, which works with educators and students across the country to promote respectful, inclusive and equitable school environments where all students can thrive.

In 2020, the Arizona legislature passed House Bill 2241. The bill requires that all Arizona students receive education on the Holocaust and other genocides during their K-12 education at least twice between seventh and twelfth grade.

“Learning about the Holocaust means learning about the heroes and the survivors, which is an emulation exercise for students — to see the high-value qualities in these brave hearts and strive to become a tenacious, upstanding individual like these figures,” said Maledon. “Also, knowing about an integral piece in world history is necessary in limiting ignorance.”

A junior at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, Maledon said many of the stories he read included a hero, in a sense, someone that helped others survive. He grew fascinated learning these stories of survival because out of the millions of deaths during that period, encountering survivor stories is extremely sacred and special.

“I believe having knowledge on the horrors of this time prevents ignorance in a lot of situations, and it’s a topic that should be taught to all students,” said Maledon. “For me, potentially leaving out the Holocaust in history classes is leaving out a massive, imperative chunk of world history.”

This year, participants were asked to read Holocaust survivors’ testimonies and explain why learning about the Holocaust has helped them respond to antisemitism and hate in their school and community with moral courage. Additionally, students were asked to identify attributes and skills needed to exemplify moral courage and effect change.

“Moral courage is about action — it means doing the right thing even when one is afraid of the consequences,” said Tammy Gillies, regional director of ADL Arizona. “These impressive young students have demonstrated that kind of courage just by taking up their pens to share their own perspectives of what a Holocaust survivor’s testimony means for combatting today’s antisemitism, which unfortunately is on the rise in Arizona and across the country.”

According to the ADL’s Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, there were 2,717 antisemitic incidents tabulated throughout the United States in 2021. This is a 34% increase from the 2,026 incidents tabulated in 2020 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.

This year’s essay contest winners include Maledon’s first-place piece, “Moral Courage in Holocaust Education.” The second-place winner, Avery Shafron, a sophomore at Rancho Solano Preparatory School in Scottsdale, wrote the piece “Moral Obligation.” And the third-place winner, Alisa Velasquez, a freshman at Dobson High School in Mesa, scripted “A Tribute of Daffodils.”

“Learning about the Holocaust is important because it has allowed me to feel empathy and closeness with my Jewish heritage. The heavy knowledge has given me a connection with my Jewish community, built on a foundation of duty to never forget,” said Shafron. “Learning about the Holocaust has also shown me the fragility of human institutions, and though this thought left me uncomfortable at first, it has been important to understand. The tragedy has also demonstrated the dangers of prejudice and inequality within society.”

The Goldberg Family Foundation donated the cash prizes, between $1,000-$2,500 per student, in memory of Herb Goldberg, who lived a life of moral courage. The foundation is dedicated to promoting positive change in people’s lives and helping to build and enhance the communities in which they live.

“The task of writing the essay compelled me to reflect about my actions and usage of moral courage in the past,” said Shafron. “I’ve learned a lot about myself — I’ve uncovered aspects of my nature as a person which I may not have, had I not written the essay.” She shared that she has outlined ways to uphold moral courage in her own life.

And as for the essay winners personally experiencing antisemitism, they are grateful to be surrounded by a positive, nurturing and kind community at school and within their families. However, the writing experience is a reminder always to have the courage to do the right thing — and to never forget.

“Maybe the most important trait needed to be morally courageous is the ability to step out of your circle and be an upstander to injustice. Change cannot happen passively and it certainly cannot come from staying quiet,” said Maledon. JN

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Nadine Bubeck is an author and freelance writer living in Scottsdale.