Jewish schools here are grappling with the horror of Monday’s attack at Ozar Hatorah in Toulouse, France. The attack has sparked international outrage, as people all over the world mourn the deaths of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two young sons, and Miriam Monsonego, the daughter of the school principal.
As France confronts the implications of what President Nicolas Sarkozy has called a “national tragedy” – putting political campaigns on hold and observing a moment of silence in schools throughout the nation – schools in northern New Jersey are attempting to explain the tragedy to their students.
Kalman Stein, principal of The Frisch School in Paramus, said he spoke to three grades on Monday after the afternoon Minchah service, while Rabbi Eli Ciner, an associate principal, met with the senior class.
“The major message, beyond expressions of grief and of prayer, was that we in America – with its centuries-long traditions of tolerance and equality – often find it difficult to really understand the hostility and anti-Semitism that characterize the environment in which so many other Jews live,” he said.
“And as we continue our school’s emphasis on fostering in our students a sense of responsibility to our fellow Jews throughout the world, and in M’dinat Yisrael [the State of Israel], students need to understand the often-harsh reality that even in the most progressive countries in the 21st century, hatred of Jews – because they are Jews – is not a thing of the past.”
Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, said he planned to speak with religious school students – “and with their parents and our whole community” – about the incident.
At a time when our own area synagogues have experienced acts of vandalism and violence, “The reality of hate-filled people acting violently requires all of us to support law enforcement in their efforts to protect us,” said Borovitz, who also serves as chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “We in northern New Jersey should truly be grateful for the efforts that our local county and state police and prosecutors continue to take to protect us.”
Still, he will tell students, “Evil people come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. We must always be careful not to suspect a person of being an enemy just because they look different from us, or are members of a different faith community.”
Finally, said Borovitz, he will stress that, “while we should all be vigilant, we should not be afraid and should not allow fear of evil-doers to keep us away from our synagogues, our schools, or our community centers.”
Ruth Gafni, head of school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, said school rabbi Fred Elias led a prayer and discussion for middle-school students.
“We called together the entire middle school to come down for lunch…and I described the events to the best of our knowledge,” said Elias. “At the same time, I reassured our own students that we have heightened awareness on our own school campus to ensure their own safety and well-being.”
Elias said he asked students what the school might do to support fellow Jews in France.
“One student, Leora Lupkin of Teaneck, suggested – and we immediately implemented this – that each class write a letter of support to be sent to the [French Jewish] community. Another student, Henry Asulin of Tenafly, suggested that we take a field trip to France in order to demonstrate that we should not run away in times of fear and anxiety.”
At Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, said Rabbi Chaim Hagler, its principal, students were told about the incident and t’hillim, psalms, were recited for the wounded.
Psalms were also recited at the Moriah School, said its principal, Elliot Prager. In addition, school leaders addressed the incident with the middle-school students at both morning and afternoon services.
“Our basic message was: We don’t understand [God’s] ways. But as filled as we may be with anger and questions, the Jewish way is not to focus on the ‘why,’ but on ‘what do we do now?'” said Prager. “We talked about giving tz’dakah in memory of the k’doshim [holy martyrs] who were slain, and the need for us to direct our t’fillot [prayers] and kavanah [the thoughts in our hearts] toward Hashem and toward those whose lives were taken. We then recited t’hillim.”
Rabbi Yosef Adler, principal of the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, said on Tuesday that he planned to speak to the entire school about the events in France.