Arts and Culture | Local | Senior Lifestyle

Docent brings her love of teaching to Tucson’s Jewish History Museum

Ellen Saltonstall

A middle school, elementary and special education teacher for 42 years in rural Vermont, Ellen Saltonstall pioneered Holocaust studies in her school district. “There aren’t many Jewish people in Vermont,” she notes.

She won a scholarship for an educators’ tour to Israel in 2009 where she had a chance meeting with the new curator of an up and coming museum in Tucson, Bryan Davis.  She thought this was quite the coincidence since she and her husband, Stephen, had future retirement property in Patagonia, just south of Tucson. She and Davis struck up an acquaintance and talked about the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center with a great shared interest.

Shortly after that, Saltonstall was diagnosed with breast cancer. She and her husband realized they could no longer plan to replicate their rural lifestyle in retirement, so they sold the land in Patagonia and instead decided to move to the Old Pueblo. Stephen, who’d developed his own medical issues, also retired from his legal work. “We ended up closer to hospitals, shopping and found a house four years ago,” Ellen says.

The move was an adjustment in many ways for the Saltonstalls – weather, culture, scale of space, way of life. She wanted to find something to keep them focused. Stephen, a first amendment activist and former trial lawyer, found his place in volunteer border politics and relief work. Ellen headed to the museum. “I really think it is an important part of the community,” she says.

As a retired educator, she naturally gravitated to children visiting the museum and led tours for student groups, noting that about 3,000 schoolchildren visit the facilities throughout the year. She also became a member of the board. Through a new grant, the museum now funds University of Arizona graduate students to lead museum and center tours. That has propelled Ellen into a new role in outreach.

Still focusing on students, Ellen works in advance with classrooms to pre-teach vocabulary and help plan curriculum before a visit to the museum, and follows up with the class after a visit. “I taught the Holocaust for so many years,” she says, the box is still full of tools.

“For most American kids, Holocaust education comes from reading novels.” Through her outreach, Saltonstall can meld what they’ll learn at the museum with classroom projects. She notes there is a wealth of materials and books available at the museum that she hopes increasingly will be seen as a community resource.

However, it’s not all about the Holocaust for Saltonstall. Designated as an International Coalition Site of Conscience, the museum is part of a global network to connect past struggles to today’s movements for human rights, turning memory into action. “Arizona Standards for eighth grade include covering World War II. It is an ideal opportunity to study about genocide, respect for other cultures, hate and ignorance, and explore anti-Semitism in Tucson. And help our community be a more humane place,” Saltonstall says.

Her museum volunteerism also helps her learn more about the history of the Southwest. “It has broadened my understanding of the Southwest and my perspective of history. It also has connected me more to my own Jewish Identity,” says Saltonstall. “That’s my temple …. that’s where I go.

“[The museum] is so important to the community, to provide an important service. Civics, social studies, and history don’t get a lot of play in school. This fills that gap and helps show how Tucson was always welcoming as a sanctuary city. And, it’s a real connector in the Jewish community. It is important that we continue to reach out.”