In the wake of the horrific mass murder perpetrated in Newton, Conn., last Friday by a 20-year-old, Jewish Pittsburghers joined the rest of the country in focusing on issues of security, empathy and healing.
Local day schools prepared to deal with addressing an unthinkable topic with their students, and rabbis and counselors were at the ready with guidance and coping strategies.
Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation, implored the community to refrain from immediately politicizing the shocking loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and instead focus on “the innocent, sweet children, and their heroic teachers.”
“There will be plenty of time to discuss all the issues,” he told the Chronicle, including gun control and mental illness. “We will get into these issues, and we need to get into these issues. But today is not the day.”
“For now, please, remember the victims,” Wasserman wrote in an email that he sent to his congregants on Sunday. “Pray for the safety of everyone and for the broken hearts of the victims’ families. Hug your children and try to look for ways to bring goodness and holiness — the Chessed of Avraham Avinu — into the world every day. And wait until the right time to have the debate and make political statements. I do not know when the right time is, but I do know that now is not the right time.”
Beginning on Friday, and continuing over the weekend, administrators at Community Day School circulated guidelines and resources to families with advice on how to tackle the topic with their children.
“It’s not about talking to your children, but about listening,” said Avi Baran Munro, head of school at CDS. “In school, we don’t go into details with the children. Our teachers have been advised to answer questions with questions, not telling the children what happened, but asking what they know.”
For the CDS children in grades two and up, the Monday morning service included mishebarach and/or mourners’ Kaddish. And while teachers did not go into details with the children about those who were murdered at Sandy Hook, they asked the children, in more general terms, to be mindful of “the victims of terror and violence, and people that are in need of healing.” Munro said.
“When I walked through the building [Monday] morning and heard the tefilla, I was grateful that we have time for spirituality at our school,” she said.
School security is naturally on the minds of parents everywhere, particularly now. CDS works closely with a nationally trained community relations officer, Matthew White, who has reviewed the school’s emergency plan.
“He says it’s one of the best he’s seen, and uses it as an example for other schools,” Munro said.
Her staff has had “active shooter training,” and the school has regular lockdown drills. CDS participates in phone calls with the Secure Community Network, the national homeland security initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, and regularly gets alerts from that agency. The school has security cameras, locked doors, and adults stationed at the doors.
“We take our huge responsibility very seriously,” she said. “Parents give us their trust, and we have to care for their children as if they were our own.”
Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh is in the process of reviewing its security policies and drills, according to Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of the school.
“We want to be sure we have everything in place,” he said. “We have regular drills, and lockdown procedures. We want to be sure that whatever needs to be happening is happening, so you do what you need to do to protect yourself.”
Rabbi Sam Weinberg, principal and education director of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh could not be reached for comment for this story.
In addition to security concerns, both CDS and Yeshiva Schools were focused on addressing any psychological and emotional issues that might arise for their students.
While Yeshiva Schools held no formal assembly for its students, teachers were advised to be “very sensitive and watchful of any reactions,” Rosenfeld said. “We have a psychologist on call on a regular basis, and we have been in touch with our national organization, so we can be prepared to deal with it if any issue comes up.”
“You have to be sensitive,” he continued. “Different children react differently. We are being watchful.”
CDS also held no structured program to discuss the shootings with the children, but teachers were urged to “provide a lot of hugs and a lot of reassurance,” Munro said.
Counselors from the Jewish Family & Children’s Service were on standby for all three local day schools, as well as public schools. But, according to Barbara Wollman, a clinical social worker at JF&CS for 30 years, young children are not as likely to be affected by news of the shootings as are their parents.
“For the elementary school crew, particularly the 5 to 7 age group, children don’t have the capacity yet to look at the future or look to the past; they are in the here and now,” she said. “Most don’t have the capacity to think, ‘I could have been there, and it could have been me.’ But this is what every adult, parent and grandparent feels.
“It’s a wonderful thing that [young children] don’t have the capacity to feel this like the older population,” Wollman added.
“This trauma will be adult-focused,” she said. “This is something the adult world is dealing with.”
For teenagers, the emphasis will be on problem solving, Wollman said.
“They will be talking about gun control, and media violence,” she said. “They are old enough to say, ‘There are not enough mental health services.’ Parents need to listen to them, and to let them debate and discuss it.”
While those children between age 6 and 12 may be “the ones more affected by life events,” Wollman does not foresee treating too many children specific to this event.
“Some children are innately more anxious,” she said. “I’m expecting the child who had trouble going to school to begin with will have increased anxiety.”
Wollman advises parents to be mindful of their tone of voice when discussing the incident with their children.
“People frequently forget about tone control, controlling your intensity and facial expressions so you don’t take what you’re feeling, and pass it on to your child,” she said. “Keep things as calm for your children as possible.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)