ALUMNI SERIES: For Holocaust Museum LA’s Jordanna Gessler, University of Haifa Was Meant to Be

Jordanna Gessler
Jordanna Gessler (right), Vice President of Education and Exhibits at Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, gives a presentation with Holocaust survivor Joe Alexander (Credit: Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust)

It was a match made in cyberspace.

After earning a BA in Holocaust Studies at University of Vermont, Jordanna Gessler initially held a job outside of that field, but she ultimately realized that she needed to be passionate about her work. When she started searching for her options on Google, the first thing that popped up was University of Haifa’s Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies.

“It was really bashert in a way that they were starting this program, I was Googling at the right time, and I discovered it,” says Gessler, using the Yiddish word for “meant to be.”

More than a decade after she graduated from the Weiss-Livnat program’s first cohort, the experience continues to pay dividends for Gessler in her role as Vice President of Education and Exhibits at Holocaust Museum LA. The program is known for its interdisciplinary approach to the study of the Holocaust, including courses in history, anthropology, psychology, education, and the arts.

“All these years later, I still look at sources that I referenced or papers that I wrote or research that I did in the program,” she says. “It gave me such a wealth of knowledge, especially because it was interdisciplinary. Many times, I’m asked to speak on panels about Holocaust films or literature, and because I took classes related to that in the interdisciplinary courses, I’m able to articulate and speak in a knowledgeable way on those subjects.”

Another example of the Weiss-Livnat program’s influence on Gessler can be seen through Holocaust Museum LA’s D.O.R. (descendants of remembrance) — a collective of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who seek to steward the legacy of their family history in order to connect through personal stories, inspire cross-cultural conversations, and educate against hate. The new training program offers the opportunity to learn how to present an engaging, historically accurate, and educational presentation about a family member’s Holocaust experience.

Students meet with Holocaust survivor
Students meet with Holocaust survivor Betty Cohen (far right) at Los
Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (Credit: Los Angeles Museum of the

“Having taken two psychology classes at University of Haifa, which specifically looked at intergenerational trauma and how trauma of the Holocaust was transmitted, definitely helps me when I’m leading trainings for children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors,” Gessler says.

In the realm of education on antisemitism, Holocaust Museum LA uses primary source materials and student worksheets to define and contextualize antisemitism before, during, and after the Holocaust. The museum encourages students, police officers, attorneys, and other professionals to analyze various primary sources to help them develop the necessary tools to identify and understand continuous anti-Jewish tropes, providing the ability to recognize and combat antisemitism.

“In order for us to combat antisemitism as a whole, we have to recognize the history of antisemitism here in America and do a better job of understanding the unconscious bias that many people have,” Gessler explains. “It’s really easy for people in the U.S. to say, ‘The Holocaust happened in a faraway country, it didn’t happen here,’ and use that as an excuse to not confront historic antisemitism in the United States.”

Meanwhile, the museum’s Holocaust Survivor Wisdom Project focuses on interviewing survivors for the preservation of survivors’ insights, advice, memories, and values for future generations. By collecting and sharing these interviews, educational institutions, researchers, and the broader public can gain insights into the Holocaust’s human consequences and the resilience and strength of the survivors’ spirit in the face of immense adversity.

Holocaust survivor
Holocaust survivor Lea Radziner speaks at Los Angeles Museum
of the Holocaust (Credit: Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust)

Gessler has found that the educational tool of survivor testimony is often most powerful when it is shared through short films.

“Understanding that most people can’t necessarily sit and watch a three-hour testimony, or that many teachers don’t have access to enough class time, making shorter-format videos with survivor testimony to enable students to hear the words of survivors,” she says.

At the state level, Gessler is involved with the California Teachers Collaborative for Holocaust and Genocide Education (California Collaborative), joining her colleagues in Sacramento last spring to advocate for the Collaborative’s goal of securing the funding to train more than 8,500 teachers and educate more than 1 million California students by 2027 about what happens when bias goes unchecked. Indeed, in mid-September, California Governor Gavin Newsom proceeded to sign and pass California’s 2023-24 budget, which includes $1.5 million in renewed funding for the California Collaborative.

The newlyexpanded gallery
The newly expanded gallery on swastikas and other Nazi hate symbols at
Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (Credit: Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust)*

“It’s a really great example of how we can work together to make a difference,” Gessler says of the California Collaborative. “You have nonprofit organizations working in the genocide and Holocaust education fields throughout the state, combining resources and partnering together to be able to reach more students and teachers, and I think that’s when you have the biggest impact.”

Today, Gessler remains in close contact with some of her former University of Haifa classmates, providing opportunities for professional collaboration. For instance, she provides resources for one classmate whose research focuses on sexual violence during the arrival process at concentration camps.

“Whenever I come across relevant testimony and artifacts in our collection, I flag them immediately and send them to her,” Gessler says. 

Additionally, Gessler hired a graduate of the Weiss-Livnat program to join her team at Holocaust Museum LA about two years ago — and they even have the same favorite professor, Dr. David Silberklang.

“The program has been an incredible resource not just for skill-building but also for calling back on a lot of the unbelievable resources that were available to me, archival and otherwise, at that time,” she says.

For more information about University of Haifa’s Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies, visit: