It’s become a depressingly familiar rite that parents must go through with their children every time there is a mass shooting. But for Jewish parents, the massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh has burned with the anguish of thousands of years.
Children have heard and talked about shootings in schools and malls, but talking about a shooting in a sacred space where the victims were targeted for their faith is something different. Yet that’s what Jewish educators and parents have been grappling with since Oct. 27, when 11 people were killed at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue.
“In response to this tragedy, we held an assembly for the fifth through eighth grades on the Monday morning immediately following the tragic shooting, at which we said Psalms for the victims and their families, and provided time to process what had happened in an age-appropriate way,” said Rabbi Yisroel Weiner, principal at Phoenix Hebrew Academy.
As the funerals for the dead began, Rabbi Gavriel Goetz, head of Yeshiva High School of Arizona, shared with parents the words he had told their children.
“These Jews in Pittsburgh, like those in the Holocaust, were killed just as so many countless Jews have been slaughtered over the generations, for no reason other than the often inexplicable phenomenon known as anti-Semitism,” Goetz said.
He also told his students that the victims are “holy martyrs in the real sense of
the words … ”
Weiner sought to ease his students’ fears.
“We talked about the silver lining of achdut — unity and togetherness — which tragedy often creates, and how to make that achdut permanent instead of allowing it to dissipate as it is prone to do,” he said. “Finally, we talked about the feelings of hakarat hatov, appreciation, which we must all feel for the police officers who willingly threw themselves into danger in order to protect our brethren, and for the government which they represent.”
Both Weiner and Goetz also addressed the issues of security and safety at their respective schools.
“On a practical, local level, we need to do our part to remain safe,” Goetz said. “To that end, the Yeshiva has applied for and received a federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security, which will be put toward security infrastructure in our new building. Additionally, we have consulted with law enforcement and security companies regarding ways we can protect our students.”
Along with educators’ words to children, the Anti-Defamation League has released a series of tips to help parents and guardians answer children’s questions:
Parents should make sure they feel prepared before they tackle the incident with their children. Conversely, children should be given enough time and space to share their feelings and ask questions. Despite your own personal anguish, the ADL cautions parents to remain calm and not become overly emotional so youngsters can comfortably express their own feelings.
Treat all young people’s questionswith respect
Instead of ignoring or dismissing a question that makes you uncomfortable, the ADL recommends that you ask yourself why you feel that way. Your children will sense your discomfort, which may increase their feelings of fear. “It’s preferable to tell children that you need to think about their question before answering. When answering their questions, keep it simple. Don’t give long lectures or speak in platitudes.”
Be open to talking about why these incidents take place
When such terrible events occur, youngsters want to know why they happened and what motivated the person who committed the crime. ADL recommends that if you don’t know the answers, particularly about motivation, it’s best to say you don’t know either. “Sometimes intolerance of differences and bias is at the root of the violence. Therefore, it is especially important to be careful when describing the perpetrator because we don’t want to respond — out of fear — with our own stereotypes, assumptions and scapegoating.”
Be alert for signs of distress in young people
Monitor your child closely for such things as withdrawal, lack of interest, acting out and fear of attending school or other activities. “In addition, misinformation, rumors and bias can take place on the playground or on a smartphone so gauge what they are hearing from friends and on social media and dispel inaccurate, skewed or biased information.”
Focus on the helpers
The wonderful Fred Rogers, who lived in the area where the massacre took place, would often tell the children watching his show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” that whenever they were afraid to “look for the helpers.” For the ADL, that’s still very good advice today. “It is always very useful to highlight for children the people who helped the targets and their families during these incidents as well as those who supported them afterwards.”
The ADL also recommends that youngsters be allowed to take some sort of action. At Phoenix Hebrew Academy, Weiner said students took a step to show unity with their fellow Jews.
“After the assembly, students wrote letters of solidarity to the victims and their families, which we mailed to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.” JN