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August 20, 2014 | 24th Av 5774

Responding to Vandalism

Compiled by Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

There are no simple answers and it would be presumptuous to deny the profound impact of incidents of vandalism and violence. At the same time, there are some suggestions and guidelines that we believe can prove useful and heartening. When Sanctuary windows are shattered, when hate filled messages are scrawled on walls or other acts of vandalism occur  there is a sense of violation that can be threatening to our core feelings of belonging, of trust and even of meaning—no matter how old we are.  Why would someone do this? How do people feel about me? Am I welcome? Am I safe? What does this mean about the world? Where is God? What can I or the people around me do to make things better? At a time when something has occurred that can shake our sense of trust, the congregation can be a great source of help, inspiration and strength to members of all ages. Jewish community and Jewish values allow us to offer some responses to the situation that can increase our congregants’ and their children’s and grandchildren’s spiritual and emotional resiliency, their capacity to face painful challenges and adversity and emerge with feelings of confidence, competence and hopefulness intact.

It is traumatic to have our congregational home willfully damaged. Trauma reduces our sense of being valued, it causes us to feel silenced and to feel our voices are disregarded, it can make us forget our previous ability to feel competent, it can demand new skills and resources to manage the situation at hand and it can challenge our sense of meaning, our sense of trust in the world. Our immediate responses then need to be ones that:

  • Restore a sense of being valued: We can do this by calling all of our members if our resources allow it, offering meetings and gatherings where they feel a sense of belonging, conveying the support and interest of the larger Jewish community (such s the URJ), seeking support from the larger non-Jewish community (inter-faith organizations, other local groups) to help our members to feel that these acts do not represent general attitudes toward the congregation and towards Jews.  We can strengthen our bonds among members and within families so that each person feels cared about and supported.  It is a simple truth that every one of us can cope with situations that make us feel anxious and insecure with greater calm when we feel truly loved and have the actual companionship and presence of warm, encouraging others. (Specific suggestions for responding to children are included below)

  • Allow feelings to be heard and validated (however intemperate they may be): Offer private opportunities for people of all ages to express fears, sense of outrage and even to express irrational ideas of how to respond. We don’t express approval or disapproval, we simply validate that such feelings are natural under the circumstances—though we do prevent people from acting upon destructive impulses. Once people feel heard, can name their emotions in a non-judgmental atmosphere they can move towards considering what ways of coping have helped in the past and what the consequences of any course of action might really be. It can help to offer forums in classrooms including opportunities to do drawings, in private consultations, parents can be helped to listen constructively and referrals made for support from mental health professionals where there is need for more help expressing and managing feelings. It helps when parents, synagogue and mental health professionals can validate that such feelings are expectable but we don’t let them ultimately govern our way of responding.

  • Provide correct information about what occurred and what is being done about it so that misconceptions are reduced  

  • Help people remember ways they have been able to manage crisis and disappointment in the past and engages them in creative problem solving.  Engage congregants in discussions of how they have responded and coped with vandalism, prejudice and destructive acts in the past and were able to ultimately feel better about the situation. This may include how they raised funds to make repairs, how they turned to inspiring stories of overcoming adversity, how they were able to put in perspective that some people do bad things but most people are friendly and helpful etc.

  • Offer active new solutions and  resources to manage and transcend this experience. This can include working with other community organizations on programs that build understanding and acceptance of diversity (Like the ADL World of Difference Program), informational sessions on natural reactions and ways of finding calm and hopefulness,  offering counseling where warranted, parent education workshops, fundraising efforts for repair and improvement….your community will evolve these. They may include increased surveillance and security around the building, providing information about the investigative efforts of law enforcement agencies, providing reassurance about how safety and security will be promoted without conveying alarm or impossible levels of certainty.

  • Inspire a sense that what our lives and experiences are part of a larger unfolding history that has meaning, purpose and goodness Locate this experience in a wider spiritual and historical context—but not a catastrophizing one. We need not point to the Holocaust to say our people (and others) have faced acts that show the lack of understanding and kindness on the part of others but we have transcended and kept our own values of seeking to be a light to the world. Kids and adults thrive on hearing about heroes rather than helplessness…those who faced difficult times and did great good. It is very helpful to use our Jewish and American traditions and stories of overcoming adversity and prejudice to become stronger, more ethical, more caring to ultimately bring greater goodness into the world. Of course we will remind our members that the congregation is more than a building, it is a network of deeply caring relationships connected to a tradition of goodness, survival and sanctity and that no rocks can shatter what has nourished and guided us throughout history.  


Some suggestions for dealing with children’s reactions

The good news is that younger children derive their sense of security from remaining close to parents regardless of what is going on in the outside world or even within the family. The more challenging news is that whether children hear the specifics of a situation or not they sense anxiety and will show signs of distress if their parents are feeling very overwhelmed and troubled. It is therefore very important not only to suggest to parents how they might speak or behave with children but in fact we need to provide what parents and grandparents and teachers themselves need to feel more hopeful and calmer. The adults need it for their own sake and for the sake of the young people in our community.

Some useful guidelines for working with children in a time of community stress are:

  1. Stay alert to the children’s expression of concern and feeling about events in the community
  2. Provide information appropriate to the age and temperament of the child
  3. Support children’s idealism and sense of trust,
  4. Be alert to signs of stereotyping and prejudice that develop in response to feeling endangered
  5. Steer children toward positive constructive action.

Some suggestions related to talking to children of various ages

  • The youngest children need simply to be told that someone broke the windows and that while it was not a good thing to do, the windows will be fixed and everything will be okay. They need to be assured that the grown ups will make sure that the children will be safe and well taken care of. They may sometimes see grown-ups looking sad or worried about the event but this is temporary. They need to protected from hearing too much that they will not understand and they need to continue routines such as regular meals, baths and bedtime stories, visits to relatives. Young children especially need the structure that adds to security---but the rest of us benefit from reliable routines too. 

  • School aged children can receive more information about the actual vandalism but conveyed in non-alarmist terms and emphasizing that the distress and bad feelings that may have led to this event are temporary and changeable. They can be join in efforts to add to greater understanding and tolerance of differences in the community and they can be helped to feel proud of their Jewish heritage regardless of the existence of prejudice. On the other hand,  it is best to do what we can to keep their lives proceeding with as little change as possible. Because they grasp more facts we can forget they are still kids and need to be made to feel as secure as possible. Answer questions and be honest but try to keep conversations about concerns limited and focus on the day to day---school, family news, hobbies and shared activities. They want most of all to forget about grown up concerns and get on with the business of school and play. 

  • Teens are complicated! In one moment they may seem altruistic and idealistic and deeply concerned, at other times they may seem indifferent and much more involved with their music, clothes and social life. Some may speak heatedly about retaliating or blame adults for not showing more strength of response, others may feel adults are making a big deal about nothing. In short, teens may seem very mature at one moment, more childish at the next and really need patience and tolerance for their often sharply changing reactions. Some teens may simply withdraw and not express how hurt or threatened they may feel, they may not tell anyone that they may have experienced other acts of prejudice. Others may seem defiant and indifferent, covering their concerns with a veneer of self-sufficiency and rebelliousness. Adolescence is always a challenging time. We do best to resist the temptation of turning our kids into confidantes, seeking more support from them than is fair. We also need not shelter them, depriving them of the opportunity to understand situations that affect them and their families and communities. It is very helpful to teens to offer them avenues for constructive action, whether it is involvement in efforts to fight prejudice,  to raise money to make synagogue repair, to instill pride in Jewish identity and/or to work with other youth groups and community organizations that promote tolerance and understanding. It is reasonable to set limits if kids are yelling or promoting irresponsible action but important to allow them reasonable expression of what they feel about what has occurred.  It is also important to not press them to be involved or to speak about the situation more than they choose, to respect each teen’s way of coping.

  • In dealing with children of all ages try to avoid words that convey a sense of gloom and permanence about the current situation or act of intolerance. Words like this incident, these tensions, until the situation is investigated and solved are much more reassuring than ones that convey global and unchanging danger or ill-will. It helps for everyone to be involved in activities and conversations that support hopefulness and positive action. Most important, keeping our children involved in our congregation really helps! It enables them to hear the words in our liturgy and in our history that affirm that we are not alone and that our hopes for ethical behavior among all people and the building of a better more just world can be realized. 


 

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