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:
- Limit your children’s exposure to media coverage.
- Deal with your own feelings first; your children are expert readers of your emotions and they will intuitively know how you feel.
- Reassure children that they are safe and protected.
- Use open-ended questions to ask about your children’s thoughts and fears.
- Keep your answers truthful and simple .
- 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.
- Demonstrate by your actions that life goes on.
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.