Spotlight on Helen Sachs Chaset

Posted on 01/15/2021 @ 07:00 AM

Tell us about your Jewish background and education. 
My parents, (Israel) Joe and Marcia Sachs, were survivors so I was born in a DP camp in Hanover, Germany. The only thing I remember about it was the snow. At the age of two, we were able to emigrate to the United States, and we lived in Manhattan until I was 10 years old. My parents sent me to a yeshiva preschool and kindergarten mainly because they both had to work until 5pm and the program offered extended hours, not because my parents were that observant. After that, I attended public schools.
When I was ten years old, my parents moved to Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. There I became bat mitzvah in a conservative synagogue and was very active in USY. In fact, I tried to convince my parents to keep kosher, but they gently informed me that if I wanted to do that, I could certainly have a kosher kitchen… when I had my own house!
Later on, I got my undergraduate degree at Clark University in Psychology and then my Masters in Special Education and a Doctorate in Special Education and Program Evaluation at George Washington University. While I was studying for the Masters and Ed.D., I was also teaching in the Montgomery County, Maryland public schools.
In the early 70s, I started the first congregational education program for Jewish children with disabilities at Congregation Beth El, a conservative synagogue in Bethesda, and I also taught there for several years too. In the mid-late 70s, I became the Vice President for Education at the Arlington Fairfax Jewish Congregation and was on their board for 10-12 years.
I’ve spent most of my life, over 45 years, in public education as a teacher, a specialist and finally as a school principal in Bethesda. I also was an adjunct lecturer on the university level in a number of different schools in the area. I just couldn’t get enough of teaching, because when you teach, you also learn and I believe in life-long learning.
After retiring from the public school system in Maryland, I moved to Miami to be closer to my parents and served as Director of Professional Development at the Scheck Hillel Community School for several years. I still do private consulting, grant writing and leadership coaching primarily in the field of education but outside of it as well.
What about Jewish education motivated you to take this position of leadership on the CAJE Board?
Being a child of survivors, I became aware of my parents’ experience at a very early age. When they would invite their friends, who were also survivors, over to our house, I would secretly listen to their conversations, which often were about their experience in the camps. Because of that, I tried to get my hands on anything I could read in order to understand their experience in the Holocaust.
Being Jewish was always important to me and as a teen, I would often go to services. At a young age, I realized that education affected the way people treated one another and as a teacher, I could have an impact on the world to help children be more kind, not to bully others and strengthen their moral character.
It was my way of making a difference because genocide is on one end of the spectrum of human behavior, but on the other end, are all the behaviors and beliefs that lead up to it—like feeling “the other” is less than you are. So I guess I can say that being the child of survivors has driven me personally, professionally, culturally and socially.
In recent years, I’ve gotten involved at CAJE as a board member and a member of the March of the Living Committee because CAJE is an avenue for people to become more educated at every age about Jewish life, how to be Jews and also human beings.
I now read the Torah portion regularly and it gives me much food for thought. The values of our people are so special and worthwhile that I believe they should be influencing humanity as whole.
Tell us about your experience going on the March of the Living in 2019.
It was life-changing for me as much as it was for the teens. I had been to Poland with my parents on a family trip where we visited their hometowns as well as Auschwitz/Birkenau. But to go with young people, to witness how they incorporated it into their lives was remarkable! And I developed important friendships with the three survivors who accompanied me.
Now I understand why it was so important for my father to go on the March, which he did many times before he died. And I hope to go again as well so that I can keep my parents’ stories alive and tell them to others.
What is something you would like our readers to know about the March of the Living?
Participating in the March of the Living brings an incredible amount of historical, spiritual and cultural knowledge to any teen or adult who embarks on this journey, not just about what happened in Europe from 1933-1945, but also about what Jewish life was like before the Holocaust. More importantly, due to the relationships formed and intensity of the experience, I believe that the personal and interpersonal reflections generated by the March ensures the continuity and growth of the Jewish people.