Even upon landing in Paris, en route to Toulouse, it was clear that a grave thing has happened. I could see an armed soldier every few meters. When I got off the El Al plane from Israel a heavy feeling connected me immediately to the reality not only of what happened — the murder of a teacher and three children at the Ozar Hatorah School by a terrorist — but also to our being vulnerable.
I met, on behalf of the Israel Trauma Coalition and the Jewish Agency, with the emergency team of the community — the committed and dedicated people who are faced with an overwhelming situation. Just the idea of coordinating and setting priorities seemed a relief to them. They were overwhelmed by the event itself, by the needs of the community, especially the schools, by the approaches of the press, of people and organizations who offer help, and of course by the fact that Pesach is at the door.
The thing that touches me most is how it is all so familiar — the shock, the pain, the need to be comforted, to be part of a caring community, the surprise at the vulnerability, the issues of Jewish identity. And on top of that, the feeling of collective responsibility, of community commitment, of a sense of belonging.
I shared our experience with the emergency team and we decided to write a letter to the members of the community offering general advice, a message of togetherness, a list of services and phone numbers made available for the community over the next few weeks.
We also wrote general guidelines in French for people to understand what the expected and normal psychological reactions are and when people should seek professional help. This information will be on their website but also shared with parents and teachers.
We went to Ozar Hatorah, where police barricades outside the school make traffic difficult. A familiar sight of tragedies — bunches of flowers, candles and drawings — greeted us at the entrance to the school. Small groups of teachers or adolescents whispered or talked quietly. Sadness was literally in the air. You could feel the heaviness. The director of the school was sitting shiva and would be coming back for a few days before returning to his children in Israel for Pesach. He is much admired for his leadership, and major decisions are not being made without him.
I met with the teachers at the school. They are struggling with the terrible sights they witnessed, by the reactions of the children, and with their own sense of helplessness. They are worried about encouraging children to express their fears while wondering how they themselves will handle it. I shared our experience in working in schools both with children and with trauma teams, explained what is to be expected and what to do, stressed the importance of self-care and of support. I answered questions they had about children and about themselves, and thought about what should be done before and after Pesach.
Gan Rashi is the second school affected by the tragedy. This is the school where the murdered children had studied before coming to Ozar Hatorah. Because the children at Gan Rashi are very young and because the attack did not happen there, one is not confronted so strongly with the reality of the tragedy while walking into this school. Young children were playing in the yard. The noises and sights seemed normal. But when you looked about you saw here too the faces of anxious parents, and you saw the police and the team of teachers.
I had a session with these teachers, too. It was not so different from the one I had at Ozar Hatorah, except for the age of the children. The heart goes out to teachers having to explain to 3- to 5-year-olds the meaning of death.
It is difficult for me to find the words and the strength to explain how this experience in Toulouse both saddens me and strengthens me as a person, a Jew and a professional. It is always very humbling to witness how vulnerable people can be, and at the same time to see the sense of strength they display in moving forward after a tragedy like this strikes. It is also, as strange as it seems, a source of great hope.
Talia Levanon is director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, an organization created by UJA-Federation of New York in 2001. ITC is a coalition of more than 40 organizations that helps individuals and communities cope with trauma in Israel and around the world.