How New Jersey schools teach real-life tragedy

How New Jersey schools teach real-life tragedy

Local educators discuss their school’s responses to Pittsburgh

When we hear that an American synagogue has been shot up by a neo-Nazi terrorist, we respond by — well, we all learned this week how we respond.

But for some of us, our personal response includes the immediate question: What do we do as the leader of a school or a synagogue? How do we meet the needs of our students and members? How do we help other people deal with the horror, even as we ourselves are trying to cope?

Dr. Ruth Gafni, who heads the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, started consulting with her colleagues right after Shabbat ended “in terms of how to provide the children with responses in light of an act of terrorism.”

The foundation of the response, she said, was to provide reassurances about the children’s safety and the availability of the school’s adults to listen to the concerns of the students and have the conversations “that we may not have full and complete answers for.”

“As educators, we try to follow the lead of the kids,” Dr. Ilana Kustanowitz, the school’s psychologist, said.

Overall, Dr. Gafni said, the school wanted to emphasize “how we support each other and the community in times like this. How we respond as Jewish people when one of us — because we are one — is hurting, regardless of where they are in the world.”

“Unfortunately, we’ve had difficult but similar experiences in the past,” Dr. Kustanowitz said.

She said the school tries to balance its responsibility to inform the students with the responsibility, and prerogatives, of the parents.

That means different approaches for different ages.

“It’s interesting to me how some parents spoken to the kids about it and some have not,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “When the lower school principals went to talk to the fifth graders, many did not know what had happened. It speaks to how painfully difficult it is to talk about it, how close it feels, how scary it is to expose our kids to it.”

For the middle school students, school began Monday morning by coming together in the beit midrash. The principal spoke a few words. A rabbi lit a candle and spoke for a few minutes. “Then we recited tehillim” — psalms — “together as a community,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. They sang a niggun together.

Afterward came a chance for students to meet in small groups with faculty members. “My sixth graders didn’t feel a need to process and talk about it, but the seventh graders did,” she said.

She stopped by the fourth grade classes.

“I observed little to no chatter among the kids about it,” Dr. Kustanowitz said. “We decided we were going to leave discussion of the attack as an at-home piece.”

Some students reached out to her and other faculty members with questions. “How do we live in a world that it is so vulnerable? What is security like in our school? Is it adequate? It takes your breath away how scary it can be.

“Some kids were eager to go to the community vigil at the JCC. Some kids shy away. It’s a parent or a family decision on what your kids are up to.”

That said, the Schechter choir sang at the vigil, she added. “It’s another way we’re taking part in a community response.”

Rivka Kahan, the principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, began her response with an email to the school community sent out an hour after Shabbat ended.

“Tonight we are heartbroken and joined in mourning today’s shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue,” her email began. “There are no words to describe a tragedy of this magnitude.”

Sunday morning was the school’s long-planned open house for prospective students and their parents. “It felt very incongruous to be acting very happy and promoting our school having just received this news,” Ms. Kahan said.

She began the open house by talking about the attack, and then everyone there recited psalms.

On Monday morning, a ceremony followed the normal prayer service. Associate principal Tamar Appel spoke about her personal experience of anti-Semitism from a passing driver in Englewood last year, and how it both did and did not shock her. She knew that anti-Semitism is real, but she was surprised to experience it. “ I love America, because America loves me, and I trust America, because America has given me centuries of reasons to trust it,” she told the students. In America, unlike in other countries, the police can be trusted to protect the Jews they guard. “We can continue to be proud of a country that rejects the awful hatred and bloodshed of a violent man with irrational beliefs that led him to heinous action,” she said.

She concluded by talking about the victims.

“Let us contemplate with awe these lives that were dedicated to family and friends and Judaism and Jewish communal life — lives that deserve our respect by virtue of both their length and their character,” she said.

Then students led the school in reciting psalms and lit a memorial candle.

Suzanne Cohen, who heads the school’s Tanakh department then spoke about the impossibility of “making sense of this kind of thing,” Ms. Kahan said, but that students can “at least try to bring honor to the memory of the people who died by trying to be better people and doing good in the world.”

As part of that project, some students started a school-wide program to study all of Tanakh — with students volunteering for a couple of chapters each — by the end of the shloshim, the 30-day period after death. And Ms. Kahan said the school has been in touch with Pittsburgh rabbis about possibly sending students for a shiva call.

“We’re waiting for their lead,” she said.

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