Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Newtown Tragedy: How to Transform the Pain into Meaningful Action

Written by Rabbi Mark H. Levine and David E. Behrman

Noah Pozner, age 6, is being eulogized and buried as we write this.  Along with 19 of his 1st and 2nd grade classmates, and six of his teachers.

It’s an abomination.  Perhaps beyond imagining, but we don’t need to imagine, because the news is in our faces and on our minds every moment of every day, especially when we see our children.  And we need to know how to address it—for ourselves and for our children.

After every natural disaster or national tragedy, educators publish advice for parents on talking to children about the catastrophe. Since our careers in Jewish education began, we’ve written dozens of these lessons, including—to name only a few—activities about the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the wave of suicide bombings that accompanied the Palestinian Intifadas, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9-11, the Iraq War, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora. This week, Jewish educators need to advise parents on how to address the mass murders in Newtown CT with their children.

The advice we can offer is horrifically timeless, even as each of these horrible events is unique:
  1. Limit your children’s exposure to media coverage.
  2. Deal with your own feelings first; your children are expert readers of your emotions and they will intuitively know how you feel.
  3. Reassure children that they are safe and protected.
  4. Use open-ended questions to ask about your children’s thoughts and fears.
  5. Keep your answers truthful and simple .
  6. Directly answer only the questions your children ask, and invite them to inquire about issues that worry them, but don’t bring up issues they aren’t prepared to hear.
  7. Demonstrate by your actions that life goes on.
Writing parenting articles is necessary, but in the wake of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School, advice to parents is not enough. Jewish educators have an obligation to help students transform the pain they feel into something productive. In his classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner explains that pain is part of living; it’s the price we pay for being human. When we understand that, he writes, we will no longer be consumed with wondering why we suffer pain. Instead, we’ll ask how to transform our pain into something meaningful.

After Friday’s tragedy, an important lesson we must provide our children is Rabbi Kushner’s teaching that we cannot control the forces that cause our suffering, but “we can have a lot to say about what the suffering does to us, and what sort of people we become because of it.” Pain will make some people bitter, but it will make others sensitive and compassionate. “It is the result, not the cause, of pain,” writes Kushner, “that makes some experiences of pain meaningful and others empty and destructive.”

So let’s write lessons that help our students deal with the shock of recent events, and let’s go on from there. Let’s give young Jews the tools of our tradition that can enable them to transform their pain into something productive. Deuteronomy 19:16 is such a tool: “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is shed,” the Torah commands. Let every Jewish educator teach this moral imperative during the next several weeks. Let students explore its relevance to the national debate in this country over how to stop gun violence. Let us create a national movement of Jewish students to explore the issues, including the effectiveness of reinstating the automatic weapons ban, restricting the right to carry concealed weapons, outlawing “cop-killer” bullets, and many other measures.  Let us also consider the effectiveness of mental health and other measures to prevent sociopaths from obtaining weapons that society might otherwise allow.  And in the Jewish dialectic tradition, let us teach them to understand both sides of what will hopefully be an intense national debate so that that they can effectively advocate for themselves.   Doing so will improve our society and will also help equip our students with a lifelong appreciation for Judaism, its ability to provide meaning to their lives, and its ability to help them improve the world around them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Power of Prayer – Helping Children through Anxiety and Stress

Our hearts go out to the families and community of the recent massacre in Newtown, Ct.  I wanted to share with you a blog from InterFaithFamily, a website In enjoy reading.  Perhaps this might help you help your children cope.  -- Morah Judy

I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.

Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.

After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted – like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.

In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


I write this on the cusp of the Great Brisket Bake-off.  I can't remember how many years ago I started this event -- all I remember was thinking there had to be something involving food, singing and bringing people together to worship and have fun as a Jewish community.  This time of year there are so many Christian events going on EVERYWHERE that it really is tough to be a Jewish kid in Vermont. 

But we and our children persevere.

I shared with my classes the story of Judith, a traditional Chanukah story, about the brave Jewish woman who cuts off the head of the enemy general.  Thinking about the Christmas - chanukah dilemma vs. what our ancestors went through under Antiochus IV, this isn't so bad.

But coming together reinforces our sense of community, of belonging; that we are not alone, there are others like us who value what we value and share a history, a culture and a desire for equality and justice.

So this holiday, let us rededicate ourselves to those causes in which we truly believe and to our partnership with our Jewish community here at Temple Sinai. 

Morah Judy

PS - Don't forget the brisket!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hanukkah in a Box

There's still some shopping time left for Chanukah -- after all it is 8 days.  You can still order from Jewish Holidays in a Box for their Hanukkah in a Box that includes:

  • Blessings and candle-lighting tips  
  • Hanukkah Bingo Game for 4
  • Dreidels for 4
  • Recipes
  • Songs
  • CD Tutorial
  • Hanukkah Primer with core concepts, recipes, background, glossary and more
  • Hanukkah thank you notes
  • Decorating materials
And when Hanukkah is over, just tuck everything back into the blue box – and you’re set for next year.
Check out the video to see what’s inside: