May 21, 2019

Talking to Your Children About Pittsburgh

While the Los Angeles community has come together to remember and honor the victims from the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue, many parents are asking, “How do we talk to our children about this terrible tragedy?”  

“It really depends on if you think your child is going to be exposed to it any way,” Samantha Bookman, a therapist, told the Journal in a phone interview. “I work with families where the grandparents always have the radio on in the car. If your child is going to hear about it, I don’t think any age is too young. You have to address it.”

Bookman said offering up the bare minimum is the best course of action, and then if your children ask a follow-up question, “answer it. You don’t need to answer a bunch of questions your child isn’t asking.”

Bookman, who lives in Agoura Hills, said she told her 11-year-old son about what happened in Pittsburgh but not her 8-year-old daughter. Her children attend a Waldorf-based school, where there’s a big emphasis on protecting childhood. As a result, younger kids’ exposure to the media is limited. 

“I was cautiously optimistic [my daughter] would not hear about this,” Bookman said. “And just because of her age and personality, I knew it would be a lot more difficult for her than for my son.” 

When talking to her son about what happened, Bookman said she was factual and straightforward. “I didn’t go into any specifics. I didn’t tell him anything about what the gunman said. I just said he went into the synagogue and shot and wounded a bunch of people and killed a lot of people. Then I answered his questions. And then we just sat there and held each other and talked about how sad and scary it was.”

“If your child is going to hear about [the tragedy], I don’t think any age is too young. You have to address it.” — Samantha Bookman

Bookman said her son said something along the lines of, “I thought people hating Jews and wanting to kill us was a really long time ago.” She told him there was definitely a pattern, this has been around a long time and is also why most of the Jewish holidays talk about it.

Bookman, who belongs to Congregation Or Ami, did make a point, though, to shield her son from the media coverage and community services. “I didn’t want to make it any more real for him than it already was,” she said. 

She also reassured him that “those sad things happened at a synagogue really far away, but it didn’t happen in our synagogue and we’re really safe at our synagogue.”

Sinai Temple Rabbi Erez Sherman’s children are 3, 5 and almost 7. He told the Journal they have very little inkling of what happened in Pittsburgh. However, he has spent the past week speaking with and comforting his school’s students and parents.

“The day after [the shooting], during our morning tefilah, we held a moment of silence for those who lost their lives and also acknowledged that our synagogue is really a safe place,” he said. “When I went to the third and fourth grades, I talked about it mostly through music, which is sort of a healing power.” 

Sherman also encouraged students to share their feelings. Some said they felt scared, exhausted and fearful, while others said they felt safe, because they were surrounded by their community.

When asked what people can do in the coming weeks and months to support their children, Sherman suggested building deeper relationships within your synagogue.

“A synagogue is there in times of joy and sorrow,” he said. “The fact that tomorrow we are having a bar mitzvah but also a memorial service is exactly what a synagogue needs to be. Make sure your synagogue is a place where you can laugh and cry all at the same time.”