How do you address, with elementary school students, the shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last Saturday during Shabbat services? As a parent, that question very much depends on your child. Here is link to resources compiled by Prizmah: The Center for Jewish Day Schools: https://prizmah.org/Supporting_Children_in_the_Face_of_Tragedy. As an elementary Jewish day school, the answer was much simpler: we did not address it.
Or rather, we did not address the shooting as a subject to explore as a whole school. On Monday, some students could tell that, in re-affirming our sense of gratitude and in charging upper school students to bring good news for Friday’s breakfast meeting, I “addressed” the shooting. They got the implicit message that we do not need to highlight the shooter or his motives. They got the implicit message that we must not let terror get in the way of living. Our job, our function, our sacred purpose is to educate our students to be active citizens in a world that works against hate crimes by teaching values that lead to civil disagreement, solidarity, appreciation for each person, and not being afraid.
At the upper school breakfast meeting, we did address the shooting directly. We gave our third, fourth, and fifth grade students a chance to leave the room if they did not want to hear the broad outline of what happened and why it matters. About half of them stayed to talk about where and when the shooting took place. The conversation continued to note the number of Jews killed and police officers shot. We did not discuss the anti-Semitic motivations; we did not get into the anti-immigration social media post by the shooter. We named the tragedy, and then we did something much more important.
We called back the students who left the room before, and we talked about the communal response to the shooting. We talked about the America that showed up Sunday night at Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and all over the country. We talked about the leadership political and religious who spoke at the University of Delaware Sunday afternoon. We talked about faith leaders and faith communities making the point that we will not be divided by religion. We also talked about the campaign to #ShowUpforShabbat tonight and tomorrow, whether we are Jewish or not Jewish, to show that we will not give up going to places of prayer.
We ended the breakfast meeting on those notes. We did so in keeping with a rule we borrowed from the ancient rabbis. They went out of their way to make sure every haftarah, every Shabbat and holiday reading from the Prophets, ends with a happy verse. Even the most lamentful reading gets a verse added on to have us end on a good note. So, too, with our breakfast meetings: no matter how much bad news we cover, we end on a good note.
It was not easy to give students the sense that this week was just a regular week. It was not easy to let the news develop, though the support being shown to Pittsburgh and the Jews is increasing its own “light in a dark time.” It was not easy finally to speak about the shooting. By sticking with our core values, with our purpose as a school, and by discussing with those ready to engage further, we were able to end the week on a good note. You can, too, #ShowUpForShabbat