When reports began surfacing on Friday morning about a school shooting in Newton, Conn., Carmel Academy in Greenwich, quickly sent out an e-mail to its parents, letting them know “we were aware of what was going on and that you don’t have to worry, your kids are safe,” said Nora Anderson, head of school.
Like many other Jewish day schools, and indeed all schools, Carmel’s administrators have been working overtime to reassure and comfort parents and children in the aftermath of the country’s second-deadliest school shooting ever.
At Carmel and other day schools contacted by The Jewish Week, that has meant communicating frequently with parents and teachers, responding promptly to parent and student questions, sharing information about how best to discuss the tragedy with children in an age-appropriate manner, giving older children forums to discuss their concerns and publicizing the various security measures in place.
“We let parents know about the security measures we have in place at all times,” Anderson said, noting such procedures as a guard at the entrance and lockdown drills, that were in place long before Friday.
While most Jewish day schools contacted by The Jewish Week said they avoided discussing Newtown with younger grades unless the students themselves introduced the topic, several schools facilitated discussions with middle school and high school students.
The Jewish High School of Connecticut, less than 20 miles from Newtown, held a memorial service where students read the names of the victims, talked about their lives (they researched the victims’ stories online) and talked about the heroics involved, reported Yonatan Yussman, the head of school, in an e-mail to The Jewish Week.
“We said appropriate Jewish words and prayers, and we had a ‘Quaker style’ meeting where students could talk about what they felt like, such as their shock and anger, or feeling an acute awareness of what’s important in life,” he added.
Two JHSC students live in Newtown, and the boyfriend of the school’s guidance counselor, also a school counselor, was inside the Sandy Hook Elementary school when the shooting occurred.
At the high school of Solomon Schechter of Westchester, in Hartsdale, students reflected on the tragedy during morning prayer services and recited a special prayer composed by Rabbi Yael Buechler, rabbi in residence at Schechter Westchester’s lower school. Student leaders of the school’s “Step Up Club,” designed to help those in need, have begun a card-writing campaign to express support to the Newtown community.
Some leaders in the Schechter network schools are also entering the political fray, attempting to reframe the issue of gun violence and gun rights from a legal one to a moral one.
Daniel Labovitz, chair of the board of Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan and a member of the national Schechter Network, is drafting an open letter to the White House and Congress calling for “definitive action to limit access to, at the very least, military-grade guns and ammunition that make it easier for killers to massacre large numbers of people in a short amount of time,” Labovitz, the father of a first grader, explained in a message to Schechter leaders nationally.
In that message, he noted that “this tragedy speaks to us as Jews, as parents, and, most interestingly, as leaders of Jewish schools. If we collectively are not qualified as ‘authorities’ on the moral and social implications of this tragedy, it’s hard to imagine who else could be.
Labovitz’s open letter — approved by leaders of 14 Schechter schools so far — says the signers “respect that the U.S. Constitution protects a citizen’s right to bear arms to defend against tyranny; indeed, the Torah commands us to defend ourselves against those who would kill us. For too long, however, we have equated protecting against would-be tyrants with virtually unfettered access to military-grade guns and ammunition.” The letter cites the Torah and Talmud, noting that
“Deuteronomy 22:8 tells us that if we build a new house, we must build a railing on the roof, lest someone fall off and get hurt — literally, ‘so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.’”
The Talmud, the letter notes, “tells us that we must make every effort to ensure that we do not put dangerous weapons into the hands of would-be criminals” (Avodah Zarah 15b).
YU 2.0, a website for Jewish educators that is under the auspices of Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, posted several resources for schools, including a letter from psychologist Rona Novick, who is director of the doctoral program at YU’s graduate school of education.
Novick noted that “the most basic issue is to help children feel safe, when in fact, adults are feeling terribly unsafe. Allowing children to express their feelings, ask their questions, and do something to feel helpful, active, etc. are all important components. Especially this year, with children in the Northeast Jewish schools dealing with the hurricane, followed by escalation in Israel, now this tragedy, it feels a bit like an unending cycle of trauma.”
Novick, like many others advising parents and teachers, wrote, “School wide, the important message which all adults can communicate in their words, demeanor and actions, is that we, the adults, are here for you. We are doing everything possible to have our school be the safe place it has always been. And if children feel sad, scared, angry, or have any other distress, there are people ready to listen and be with them.”
Letters to parents and faculty issued by various schools on Sunday and Monday expressed shock and sadness, but also emphasized that they are doing everything possible to keep children safe.
“It is important to keep in mind, and reassure our children, that an event like this is rare, and schools are generally one of the safest places for children during the school day,” noted a letter from the principal and psychologist of Yeshiva Har
Torah in Little Neck, Queens, which was reprinted on the YU 2.0 site. “At YHT we have safety plans in place for both lock down and evacuation situations, and plan to review these procedures with our faculty in the coming days. We pray that we will never need them.”
On a similar note, a letter to parents from Eliezer Rubin, head of the Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, N.J. (also reprinted on YU 2.0), included resources for discussing the tragedy with children and assurances that “your children’s security and safety are paramount to us … Our chief of security is in regular communication with law enforcement agencies and works together with our administration and teachers to ensure that we remain vigilant and prepared for emergency situations. May we be blessed with peace in our community.”