Yahrtzeit Candle. By Elipongo [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Teaching After Tragedy

After an attack, how do we keep showing up?

As a traveling Jewish educator, I’m often on the road over the weekend. This past Saturday, I was on a community visit. I was looking up a local coffee place when my phone flashed a news alert: “Active Shooter in Pittsburgh Synagogue.” Immediately my heart sank and my mind began racing.

Do I know anyone in Pittsburgh right now?

Who would do something like this?

Am I safe?

Before I could fully process the gravity of what was happening, I came to a realization that I would be in a congregation that very night, marking the end of Shabbat by leading a Havdalah service. I was a guest in this community and I had been asked to prepare a service and I had agreed enthusiastically. I had prepared my script and practiced my prayers for tonight, but nothing could have prepared me for this new circumstance.

I knew I would have to address the day’s tragic news. To not address it would be a betrayal; a disservice to our brothers and sisters we had lost so suddenly and horrifically. However, I also ran the risk of upsetting some of the younger participants in the service.

I had no idea what to do. I am an ISJL Education Fellow, and my job is to be a Jewish education resource for our partner communities all across the South. My job means working alongside other Jewish professionals. It means spending lots of time in Jewish spaces. But I’m not a rabbi, and I didn’t feel equipped to be talking to anyone about this when I could hardly process it myself.

Then I reminded myself – in the community that weekend, I wouldn’t be alone. There would be a rabbi there. There would be other teachers and parents and congregants there. We would all be together. And in the meantime, I could prepare myself by looking to other resources I trusted. I read articles, I watched clips from Mr. Rogers, I looked at every resource on how to address such heavy topics with young children.

When it came time for the Havdalah service, I talked about the meaning of Havdalah; the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. Before we said the prayers and extinguished the Havdalah candle, I expressed that we should let this Havdalah not only serve as a separation from Shabbat, but as a separation from hate, fear, and violence. After a brief moment of silence, we proceeded with the service.

I wanted to tread carefully with the Havdalah service and keep up an air of subtlety, but there was nothing subtle about what I was greeted with the next morning when I got to the congregation to set up my program. I was greeted by three squad cars from the local police department, a table full of flyers and printed statements from Jewish organizations, and several members of the local church that had come to offer their support.

As students began filing in, I tried to be a calming presence, not drawing too much attention to the horrible events of yesterday while also giving the event the due respect it deserved. Pushing through my own grief, I taught and led students in a game to deepen their connection to Judaism. I was emotionally and physically exhausted when I completed my tasks; it was with a sigh of relief that I stepped aside and let the rabbi take over.

In true rabbinical fashion, he asked us a question: “What is ‘peace’?”

Students’ answers ranged from “silence” to “an absence of fighting.” After everyone had spoken, the rabbi asked us to link arms, and sing a prayer for peace. I linked arms with the woman next to me and sang. As I looked out over the packed room of students, teachers, and parents linking arms, some smiling, some crying, it felt like the great weight that I was carrying since I first saw the alert on my phone was lifted. As the prayer for peace echoed throughout the building, I knew for sure that our kehiliah kedosha (holy community) was stronger than any act of terrorism or violence.

In that moment, the terrorist who had committed horrible acts against us had lost; I felt stronger and more brave than ever surrounded by my Jewish brothers and sisters. As I headed home, I wore my kippah (yarmulke) proudly, not wanting to hide my Jewish identity from anyone.

May such terrible tragedies end, not only for our own community but for every group targeted and attacked by hatred. May we all support each other. May we be the answer to “what is peace.”

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