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Chhange organization celebrates 40 years of education

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 A closet and $150.

Those were the essentials Dr. Seymour Seigler and Jack Needle were given in 1979 after the professors at Brookdale Community College began programs that would eventually lead to the creation of the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (Chhange).

According to the organization’s website, “Chhange is a non-profit organization that provides 50-75 programs each year to more than 25,000 students, educators and community members from varied socio-economic, racial, and ethnic groups within Monmouth County, New Jersey and beyond. The organization is committed to educate, inspire and empower individuals to stand up to injustice and become active, involved citizens.”

“(Seigler and Needle) were inspired (to begin the organization) by the 1978 NBC miniseries ‘Holocaust,’ said Albert Zager in an interview at the organization’s 40th anniversary celebration in Middletown on June 1.

Zager is a founding member of the Chhange Board of Directors. He was the organization’s president for 20 years and continues to serve on the board as Immediate Past President.

“Until 1979, there really wasn’t a lot of discussion about the Holocaust,” Zager said. “The NBC miniseries inspired and prompted (Seigler and Needle) to have a program. The program was so well received by the college community that they decided to do more. The dean of community affairs joined the professors and they started programs.”

This initial program featured survivor testimony from local Holocaust survivor, Arno Penzias, who was a Nobel Prize Winner, according to the organization.

The programs took one decade to flourish into an organization, Zager said.

“(The founders) needed help because $150 a year wasn’t going to cut it,” Zager said, adding that the modest funds came from a grant award. “The board was formed to help raise money. I was asked to be on that original board 30 years ago. We organized and starting having fundraisers … It was a very humble beginning.”

Zager said the founders were given a small closet on the college campus to store materials for programs. Eventually, the closet was traded in for a corner of the school’s library. 

The organization was eventually awarded $400,000 by the institution to renovate and repurpose the existing cafeteria in the Bankier Library, Zager said.

Through fundraising efforts and donations, Zager said the organization raised close to $2 million to furnish and fill the organization’s new home with supplies and educational tools.

“Until that time, people never talked about the Holocast,” Zager said. “People who survived the Holocaust came (to America) to build a life again … At that time, it was 40 years after the Holocaust. (The survivors) then had kids who became adults and moved out. So (survivors) then had the time to do something else besides raise a family.”

He said some of those Holocaust survivors, who lived in the area, began to volunteer at Chhange, Zager reported.

“(Survivors’) mental state was such that they were now able to talk about their experiences. Five, ten, or 15 years later, they couldn’t talk about (the Holocaust). But they got to the point where they were able to talk and they started becoming speakers.”

Previously, Zager said, 20 or 30 Holocaust survivors would speak to students in local schools. The majority of survivors have since passed away, he said.

“We have been doing other things to compensate for that, knowing that we won’t have survivors to speak,” Zager said. “Now we have a permanent exhibit at the center. The exhibit doesn’t talk about the perpetrators. It talks about the victims and what their lives were like before, during and after (the Holocaust).”

According to the organization’s website, “There were about 150 Holocaust survivor volunteers visiting classrooms, churches, synagogues and other organizations … Chhange’s Speakers Bureau now includes survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, the Cambodian Genocide, other genocides and human rights abuses. Descendants of Armenian Genocide Survivors also are a core volunteer group at Chhange.”

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