When a tragedy occurs in the world, day schools—and schools in general—ask themselves the same questions: Do we respond or not? If yes, how do we respond in an age-appropriate way? These questions are obvious but not simple. Each event requires the same system of analysis, ideally based on a school’s mission statement (and, of course, taking into account what and how immediate the need is). If your goal is to inspire and equip children who, when given the opportunity, will respond to others in need, then each occurrence is an opportunity to add to a student’s toolbox.
The last several months have been fraught with such instances: the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, other anti-Semitic acts more locally, the shootings in Thousand Oaks California, the California fires, missiles fired on Israel from Gaza and, while not necessarily a tragedy on the same scale, the death and funeral of a U.S. president, and more. Parkland was one of last year’s major tragedies this country had to grapple with. And each of these events is often part of a larger national or international conversation, be it anti-Semitism, racism, gun control or something else.
Two guiding principles come to mind. The first is the Rambam in Hilchot Matanot L’evyonim (the Laws of Gifts to the Poor) chapter 7 mishna 2: Anyone who sees a poor person begging and averts his eyes from him and does not give him tzedakah transgresses a negative mitzvah, as it is said, (Deut. 15:7)...do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. The Rambam’s principle is as follows: When you open your hand to someone it has an impact on your heart and when you close your hand to someone it has an impact on your heart. Yes, it affects others, but it affects you as well. An open hand leads to an open heart and a closed hand leads to a closed heart. When our students are aware of a tragedy and are not given an opportunity to respond, it affects them, even if it isn’t verbalized. When a response is facilitated, it affects them.
In the internet and flat-world age, this is even more difficult. There is no tragedy, difficult situation or issue in what may have once been the most remote corner of the world that is hidden from our inboxes or Twitter feeds. We all “close our hands” multiple times daily. We couldn’t possibly open our hands enough times. And it affects us. It has to. Tragedy and death have, for many of us, become like any other news stories we read about. But that just makes the need to help our students respond even greater.
The other principle comes from Parshat Vayera, Genesis chapter 18 verse 19: Now the Lord had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” God is about to destroy entire cities and he decides he must tell Avraham about it. Why? Because he has charged Avraham with being a world leader, and a world leader will have to deal with world issues. Those will necessitate struggling with things that are not black and white. God tells Avraham his intentions knowing that Avraham might argue with him, might not passively agree with his judgment. And yet, he invites him into the decision. Our students are the modern day Avrahams. We are charging them with becoming leaders. Some will lead on a small scale and others will lead on a grand scale. Responding to the issues of our time is their training ground. Shielding them denies them the opportunity to learn and, ultimately, to lead.
But how does a child in kindergarten respond to a Pittsburgh? This too is a grey area. Schools must decide for themselves what the age-appropriate response is for their students. For early childhood children, the “response” is possibly their daily routine of instilling the core Torah values that form the foundation of a just and good life. It may be an extra emphasis on a value that relates to a specific issue, even if the impetus is never mentioned. For example, in addressing the California fires, for some students, a scientific analysis of how forest fires start and spread, coupled with a fundraising effort and/or letters and gift packages for first responders there or locally could be the right formula.
At what age is it appropriate to watch the funeral of a president? While some may view it as a beneficial patriotic experience and a sign of respect for our country’s leadership and democracy itself, for many students it may be—hopefully!—the first funeral they have ever experienced. There may even be some students in a particular grade that can handle it and others in the same grade who can’t. So when is it positive and when is it irresponsible?
We educate our students with the goal that they will embody and model the values that will lead to a more just and peaceful society, and that they will want to and be able to respond to tragic events and address significant issues. We try to instill an open hand and an open and critically thinking mind. That is the responsibility of our schools. How and when to expose them to the difficult events of our time is the question each school must decide for itself.
By Rabbi Joshua Lookstein
Rabbi Joshua Lookstein is the head of school at Westchester Day School.