How Jewish day schools in the U.S. are talking about the horrors in Israel with their students

Staff at SAR Academy, a Jewish day school in the Bronx, pray for Israel following attacks by Hamas that killed more than 900 Israelis, Oct. 9, 2023. (Screenshot via YouTube)

by Andrew Lapin

(JTA) — Rabbi Binyamin Krauss swayed back and forth as he delivered an emotional message to his Jewish day school Monday morning.

“It is hard to feel like you’re in a world of darkness,” he told his students at SAR Academy, the Jewish day school in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx where he serves as principal. “It’s hard to know that there are so many people that we care about who are confused, who are afraid.”

However, Krauss added during the school’s livestreamed morning prayer service, children — his students — can be a source of light and comfort to others. “All those people are going to need strength, and we’re going to do our small part to bring them that strength together,” he said.

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ invasion, the murder of hundreds of Israelis and the beginning of a long and painful military campaign, Jewish educators are wrestling with how to discuss the matter with their students, while also using their schools as gathering places for community mourning and “light and comfort.” Given the timing of the attack over a weekend that included a two-day Jewish holiday, Monday morning was the first time when many of them needed to put their thoughts into action.

“It’s difficult, of course,” Gary Weisserman, head of school at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Things are solemn here. Many here are mourning the loss of friends and relatives, or are in constant touch with family huddled in shelters, or know people being called up to service. There is a lot of fear, especially amongst our older kids, but there is great comfort in knowing there’s a strong kehillah [congregation] around you for support and kindness.”

Many schools took steps Monday to communicate the horrors of the weekend with their communities, telling JTA that they were focused on fostering a shared sense of community and support. Variations on prayer services were offered both to students and to families; some schools also encouraged families to attend pro-Israel rallies or donate to the Israel Defense Forces or other causes. Many offered mental health services to students and announced they were increasing their security protocols.

“Like everyone in the Jewish world, the entire community of Jewish day schools is profoundly and personally affected by the attack on Israel,” Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah, a nonprofit that supports Jewish day schools and yeshivas, told JTA.

“Leaders and teachers in our schools are taking the steps that they need initially to support students, faculty, staff and families, including handling the trauma, leading prayers and conversations in support of Israel, taking appropriate steps to ensure security is in place, and participating in local community efforts to stand with Israel.”

Some schools openly admitted that balancing all the messages they hoped to deliver would be challenging — particularly given the experiences of their families and staff.

“We will do our best to walk the fine line of being honest, but not too desperate,” the heads of Kinneret Day School, a nondenominational school in New York City that enrolls many Israeli children, told families.

In Englewood, New Jersey, a Hebrew teacher who had been working at the Moriah School as part of a partnership with the World Zionist Organization is already heading back to Israel having been called up to return to his army unit, the head of school, Daniel Alter, said in an email to parents. Alter said his own son recently joined the IDF and is being sent to the border communities.

Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which serves early childhood through 8th grade, has a large number of Israelis on staff. Head of school Darin Katz said his first priority on Monday was supporting them, which he hoped “would then translate to the students.”

When the time came to discuss the matter with students, Katz recalled, they were the ones who wound up comforting the staff. “They showed incredible kindness and compassion and grace to their Israeli teachers,” he said.

And in Miami, every student at the brand-new Jewish Leadership Academy recently returned from a month in Israel, a hallmark of the school’s annual program and for some their first experiences ever in Israel.

“This has made the recent events all the more personal and all the more difficult,” said head of school Rabbi Gil Perl.

On Monday, the Jewish Leadership Academy held a mandatory assembly to answer what Perl described as “critical background information,” including defining Hamas and the Gaza Strip, before breaking students into age-based groups for further discussion and to have them write letters to IDF soldiers.

Many educators stressed the importance of “age-appropriate” dialogue with students and said they would insulate younger children from certain topics and details. Milken Community School in Los Angeles, which serves grades 6-12, held a “very meaningful town meeting” where student leaders and Israeli faculty shared blessings for Israel and for peace, communications director Tal Barak said.

“We will listen carefully, and respond individually,” Ariela Dubler, head of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan, which spans preschool to 12th grade, told parents. “Of course, most importantly, across our divisions, we will be listening to our students and meeting them where they are in terms of their experiences and emotions.”

Several heads of school told parents to ask their children how much they already know rather than try to explain everything to them, while at least one, Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn, held gatherings for parents to discuss the issues in the absence of students.

Understanding the ways that children of different ages might process the crisis is crucial for teaching them about it, said David Bryfman, CEO of the Jewish Education Project, a professional development network for Jewish educators.

“They might ask a question and your immediate response might be, ‘Well, they’re asking about a border, and I need to show them a map and we need to go through the history,” he said. “But the reality is they’re asking something much more complicated, like, ‘Why do people hate one another?’ And ‘Why is there hate in the world?’”

Not all schools have yet had to tackle the crisis with their students. Some Orthodox day schools remained closed on Monday to allow families to return home after the Sukkot break, including Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov-Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi, the Midwest’s largest Jewish day school, located in Chicago, where more than 2,000 Orthodox Jews gathered Sunday night to pray for Israel.

On Monday afternoon, staff were still figuring out how to best address the tragedy in Israel with their students, the school’s CEO, Rabbi Menachem Levine, told JTA. But he said he didn’t anticipate surprising anyone with the news.

In all likelihood, Levine said, most of his students “have already been inundated with the horrors of the past few days.”

That’s part of the challenge facing educators, according to Bryfman.

“We need to acknowledge that our young people, especially our tweens and our teenagers, are going to come into contact with images, videos, vitriol on Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, that we won’t be able to control as educators or as parents,” he said. “Young people just can’t deal with that same intensity and barrage of information the same way that adults can.”

Balancing the crisis with the schools’ regularly scheduled programs is another challenge. As SAR’s morning service was wrapping up, staff and students laced their arms over each other’s shoulders and swayed. With students at every grade level watching from classroom windows above and the media center below, they sang “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.

Then, with an Israeli flag projected on the monitor, Krauss made an announcement: “Please return to your classes.”

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