May 21, 2019

Talking to Your Students About Pittsburgh

In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, Jewish educators have come together to discuss strategies to help students navigate this difficult period. On Nov. 1, The Jewish Education Project, a New-York based organization that empowers leaders and educators, hosted a webinar titled “Responding to Pittsburgh: Helping Jewish Children and Educators Feel Secure.” 

Some 350 people logged on to watch the event, moderated by Rabbi Jen Goldsmith, managing director of Congregational Learning and Leadership Initiatives, and David Bryfman, chief innovation officer of The Jewish Education Project. 

“We hosted this webinar because our Jewish educators are on the front lines, dealing with the confusion of emotions that our children experience,” Bryfman told the Journal in an email. “We owe it to our youth to provide frameworks for them to come together in times like these. And we believe that educators need to take the time to care for themselves so that they can be the best educators that they can possibly be.”

Also on the call were Liron Lipinsky, associate vice president of Jewish Enrichment at BBYO, which calls itself a pluralistic Jewish teen movement; Betsy Stone, psychologist and adjunct lecturer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Meredith Lewis, director of content and engagement at PJ Library; and Shira Deener, director of Jewish education at Facing History and Ourselves.

“What’s interesting to see is how the different groups here are coping,” Lipinsky, who is based in Pittsburgh, said during the webinar. “Some are empowered to speak out and speak up about why they believe this tragedy took place and wanting answers and solutions so that this doesn’t happen again. And there are others who really would prefer to spend this time focusing on breathing.”

Stone spoke of the importance of being aware of “stress reactions — sleeplessness and fear” from children in the wake of the tragedy. “And everything we have to be prepared for in our children, we have to be prepared for in ourselves,” she said. 

For students in fifth grade and above, Stone recommended they write condolence notes. “A condolence note has three lines: ‘I’m so sorry’; something nice about the person or the thing you’re writing the condolence note about; and ‘I’m so sorry.’” 

“We owe it to our youth to provide frameworks for them to come together in times like these.” — David Bryfman

Stone also suggested placing large Post-it notes on the wall that state, “I feel” or “I want” and then giving students markers to fill in the blanks. “It gives kids the opportunity to see what other people are saying and to say what they feel anonymously. Don’t just do this once,” she said. “Do it again in a month, and maybe about something else. What it does is validate people’s emotional experiences.”

Lewis, who in her role at PJ Library connects parents and educators, said parents are looking for age-appropriate spaces where they can channel some of their hopelessness and despair into action. Since community vigils and conversations may be the only thing available for families, and are not right for a lot of young children, it’s a challenge.

“It’s OK for parents and children to do different things right now,” Lewis said. Instead of going to the community vigil as a family, Lewis suggested an adult say, “I’m going to a community vigil. As a family, we’re going to bake challah for our neighbors, because there’s a tradition of when we create and bake and share, we express love.”

Stone added it’s important to be careful to not project adult fears onto children. “Kids don’t need to hear how frightened you are,” she said. “That effectively makes it impossible for them to tell you how frightened they are or what else they might feel. It also tells the kids your feelings matter more than theirs.”

Lewis added, “Children are not little adults. They see the world differently. And they probably have a lot to teach us. Just remember, that all of the adult stuff we bring to the table we actually don’t need to bring to them. We can let our children lead.”

For more resources, click here.