Joyce Raynor heard the terrible news on her car radio as she was driving to the lower school at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange.
By the time her meeting there had ended, the head of the Jewish day school said, “the reports got worse and worse. I was thinking about the little kids I had just watched walk down the hall. Four-year-olds, precious babies. You can’t put your mind around how somebody could harm them.”
The Dec. 14 mass murder at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., thrust Raynor and many other local Jewish educators into intense planning sessions that lasted most of the weekend and continued when classes resumed Monday.
The key issues were how to reassure parents and children that their schools are safe and secure, even as they drafted strategies for age-appropriate discussions of a national tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders, six adults, and the 20-year-old gunman.
Schools and synagogues were also reexamining security procedures and running lockdown and evacuation drills.
“We want to assure the children we do everything we can to make them safe, that horrible things happen, and that people sometimes do horrible things and we counteract them with acts of goodness,” said Michelle Shapiro Abraham, director of education at Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood.
Like other school administrators, Raynor e-mailed parents for their advice on how to proceed.
“We got responses that many parents did not want the school to have this conversation with their younger children,” she told NJ Jewish News. “It is hard to know how troubled kids are. But you could see them looking in the eyes of the adults to see how we were reacting.”
At nearly all the Jewish elementary schools in the area, educators agreed that discussing the murders with the youngest students was more appropriate for the parents.
“With the younger children you want to make sure that you are not sharing too much information,” said Cheryl Bahar, dean of general studies at the Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph. “You want to protect everybody’s emotional space. You want to make sure that you are addressing the kids’ needs and their questions appropriately.”
For older students, different schools used different teaching methods.
At Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, “we felt English teachers should give writing assignments so the children could respond and emote in a safe and private way,” said head of school Rabbi Eliezer Rubin. “If the students preferred not to write about it they would not be compelled to.”
“We asked the Bible teachers in grades nine through 12 to lead a discussion about these events and try to give direction to healthy and appropriate thinking about evil in the world — not to find answers but to learn from the events and get strength from people’s goodness,” said Rubin.
At the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, the high school principals addressed the subject after morning prayers. They “let the students know that if they wanted to talk with somebody, there were people who were prepared to talk with them,” said the associate dean, Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz.
Before classes began on Monday morning, Teitz said, he told administrators “that today is not a day to try to figure out why it happened or to discuss philosophic issues. Today is a day to let the kids let out their anxiety.
“But we found that teachers need help more than the kids, because they are adults and they get it better.”
Praying for peace
Administrators of synagogue schools also opted not to discuss the issue with students in lower grades.
“This is an issue for every parent and how they want to handle it. If the subject comes up, the teachers know to say, ‘Let’s not talk about it now,’” said Leah Beker, director of education at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston.
But hours after the Newtown shootings, education director Susan Werk led a prayer service at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
“I kept it vague,” she told NJJN. “We prayed for peace. The parent body appreciated it, but it went right over the kids’ heads. The kids are being kids. It is the adults who are really struggling with it in my world.”
At Temple Sholom, Abraham said, teachers were instructed to encourage students to talk to their parents. “We were conscious that different parents are handling this differently, and we wanted to make sure to be respectful of that.”
Abraham, who has a 13-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son, said her home in Fanwood “is normally a house that has NPR on the radio all morning, but for the last few mornings we have not. We have been answering our children’s questions and making sure the information they have picked up in other places is correct.”
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange made a point of addressing the shootings at all five Shabbat minyans on Saturday. A father of four, he recalled sending his children off to school with the usual kiss on Friday morning, and hugging them with a different intensity that evening. “Moments like this put everything into perspective,” he said.
He told his congregants that “there is a need for us to react as individuals, with a sense of humility, from the standpoint that we have no control when things like this happen.” He urged them to pray, turning to God as to a father figure, not in expectation of finding answers but for the comfort of feeling heard.
Addressing the teen minyan, he encouraged the youngsters “to speak to their parents, or to me, or their friends or teachers about their fears and their feelings. I told them those feelings are very real, and it is important to express them,” Zwickler said. “I don’t want to rob them of their innocence or ask them not to be kids, but I said they should take a step back and recognize the people they love, and who love them.”
Rabbi Randi Musnitsky of Temple Har Shalom in Warren, a mother of two sons in their 20s, said the challenge of speaking to her congregants on Friday night was made even greater because of the celebration of Hanukka.
“There were lots and lots of young children present,” she said, “but there were also adults there clearly in need of solace. I wanted to strike the right balance. I alluded to the heartbreak and the senseless violence but without going into any detail, and I focused on gratitude, and opened up the question for kids and their parents, to consider what they are thankful for in their lives.”
Mindful too that there was a bar mitzva boy present, she thanked him for helping to bring balance and joy to the congregation. In reciting Kaddish, she included a special prayer that a way be found to combat violence and to feel safe again.
NJJN staff writer Elaine Durbach contributed to this article.