November 19, 2018

Hebrew Mentors Put Shootings Into Context for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs

Hebrew Helpers

Todd Shotz was sitting at home on Oct. 27 when he heard about the synagogue shooting that had just happened in Pittsburgh. As the founder of the bar/bat mitzvah prep company Hebrew Helpers, he realized that over the next week he and his team of 30-plus mentors across the United States were going to be seeing 180 students with different levels of Jewish knowledge, ages and affiliations. 

“I’ve been teaching 23 years, and never had to deal with this,” Shotz said. “It’s uncharted territory to talk to students this young about this kind of thing.” 

Shotz organized two conference calls for mentors to discuss the events and how — or even if, in some cases — to address them. On the calls, mentors said it was important to talk with students about the history of anti-Semitism while realizing the conversations might be difficult. 

“What is our responsibility as Jewish educators in each household? The work we do is so customized and every parent has their own way they handle scary world news,” Shotz said. “Students are going to hear about it in school. It’s hard to explain to anyone — that people would be in a safe space like a synagogue and be attacked in this way. But maybe we can offer some bit of context.” 

Hebrew Helpers mentors connected with parents via phone, text or email to find out what their children had already learned about the shooting. Then, instead of retelling the events to the students, mentors asked the students what they had heard, so they could help the students process that information. 

“We could hear what they latched onto, what was most scary or confusing to them and fill in gaps that they could handle,” Shotz said. “Then we could take it to a place of learning, history and context. We’re trying to do that with every student so we can go on with our week and our lives, paying tribute to the memory of these people [and discussing] how we can work toward building bridges with other people and against hate.”

One family asked its mentor not to mention Pittsburgh with their child. Another 11-year-old student asked a mentor, “Why do they hate us?” 

“It’s uncharted territory to talk to students this young about this kind of thing.”
 — Todd Shotz

“We can’t say ‘they’ because that’s generalizing too much,” Shotz said. “It’s these specific people using hatred and looking to blame their lot in life on an easy target. We’re small in number; it’s easy to blame us. A lot of those people act from ignorance. They don’t even know any Jewish people.” 

Depending on the student, mentors might teach a bit about the history of anti-Semitism. “But ‘they hate us’ is too overwhelming,” Shotz said. “We try to give students a sense of reality and context without scaring the living daylights out of them.”

Founded in 2005, Hebrew Helpers works with individual students to identify what kind of bar/bat mitzvah ritual will be meaningful. Mentors create personalized learning plans, incorporating students’ passions and interests but covering key rituals, prayers, texts, holidays and history.

Like many of their fellow Jews following the shooting, the mentors needed to do some processing of their own — especially before developing their teaching strategy with their students, Shotz said. He received several text messages expressing appreciation for the conference call they shared.

 “As educators, they care so much about the students and want to be that [support] person for them,” Shotz said. “But they needed to know we were here and could support them as a community of mentors.”