Sept 11: A Day in the Valley of the Shadow of Death
A guide created by the Union in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Designed to be used by educators, faculty members, and parents, the materials are divided into age-appropriate units. Please copy, adapt, and use as appropriate in your congregation.
While we do not yet have the perspective of memory, it is already clear that today, September 11, 2001/ 23 Elul 5761, is a horror. The surreal is real. Our assumptions about the nature and meaning of life are terribly shaken. Especially as we approach the Days of Awe, we are tragically reminded that the human capacity for evil will not die. We have the perpetual task of proving that the human capacity for good will be at least as resilient.
In the wake of disaster and destruction, we offer this guided response in order to assist and support you as you, in turn, seek to assist and support yourself, your families, your friends, your colleagues, your faculty, your students and their parents.
The range of reactions to today's acts of violence and terrorism can be as wide for children as for adults. Some may be directly and personally affected. Some may be confused, or angry, or sad, or apathetic. Some may want to talk about their feelings. Others may be obsessed with their feelings. Still others may prefer to internalize their feelings. Respecting the diversity of reactions, we hope the following guidance will prove responsive and responsible.
Questions you may face include:
Am I safe? Is it going to happen to me?
What can we do to help?
Why do people hate?
Why did they do this to us?
What will happen next?
Are we in a war?
How can we defend ourselves?
Will people be angry with me because I am Jewish? With us? (This may require some contextual analysis, e.g., the racism' conference in Durban, the relationship between the United States and Israel)
There is no prescribed, categorical answer to any of these questions. Instead, we suggest you consider adopting or adapting a developmentally appropriate, authentically Jewish strategy - LISTEN; ACKNOWLEDGE; SHARE; RESPOND; ACT.
FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD SETTINGS
The following are suggestions for helping you discuss the tragedies that occurred today in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. with your young students. Although it is tempting to believe that because of their youth they do not know and cannot understand the devastation that occurred, the truth is that many are well aware that something terrible has happened: they have seen reports on the television; their parents have expressed strong emotions including sadness, shock, and anger; and some have been personally touched. Although we are not necessarily recommend that you initiate a conversation on the topic with your preschoolers, you need to be prepared to help children who come to school confused, upset, and dismayed by the events of the day.
When a child mentions what s/he has heard on television or at home, give her/him time to talk. Their need to be heard is more important than your need to move on to the next activity.
Young children speak not only with words, but also with actions. Some common reactions to stressful situations among preschoolers are: thumb sucking, clinginess, changes in appetite, loss of interest in preferred activities, and aggression. If you notice these changes in a child, you may want to open up a conversation by saying "Many children are thinking about what happened in New York and Washington yesterday. Have you been thinking about it?
Let children know they have been heard. Repeat what you have heard them say to you.
Name the emotions children are expressing whether verbally or through their actions.
Ask, "Are you worried that something like that might happen here?"
Remember that all feelings are valid. While a child's response may not make sense to us, we need to validate it as true for the child
Tell children that you share their feelings.
Explain what happened in very simple words. Correct any distortions or inaccuracies the child may have.
Let children know that they are safe at school.
Create safe outlets for children to express strong emotions. These may include: additional playtime outside, opportunities to work with clay or play dough, time to draw and color, and water play.
Maintain your routine. Routine makes children feel safe. However, it is equally important to be flexible enough to respond to the needs of the children.
We advise that you not provide constant media exposure to the children. Although watching the news or listening to radio broadcasts may be comforting to you and the other adults in the setting, it is disturbing to young children.
In the same spirit, we suggest that you not allow this tragedy to overwhelm your normal day. Children, unlike adults, experience strong emotions in fits and starts, rather than as a constant. When a strong emotion overwhelms them, they cope by turning the emotion off for the time being. Spending time as a group discussing the terrorist acts will overwhelm children. Rather, you need to be available to discuss the incidents with individual children when they are ready.
Provide an opportunity for children to make cards for individuals who have suffered losses as a result of the terrorist acts.
Organize a collection to help families who have been affected.
Teach children that they have the power to make a difference by allowing them to dictate letters responding to the incidents and mailing them.
FOR ELEMENTARY GRADES
Teachers, educators, rabbis and parents have a very special opportunity to help students articulate and address the fears and concerns that are a natural response to the terrorist attacks against the United States. Our goal is to provide a forum for the sharing of feelings that can be directed toward constructive, life-affirming action. Here is a possible way to achieve this outcome:
Make time for discussion so that each student can have an opportunity to express his or her thoughts or feelings. Because children (and adults!) can sometimes ridicule one another's remarks, it is important to establish guidelines that will create a safe framework for open sharing. This can be achieved by gaining agreement that no one will comment on anyone else's remarks, except to restate for clarity and understanding. (For example, Joanne might say, "I think Martha means that war is bad no matter what." Martha then has an opportunity to confirm or alter that understanding.)
It is possible that some students will feel uncomfortable speaking about difficult feelings in a larger group. In such cases, it might be beneficial if the teacher could invite the student(s) to speak privately at a specified time in the near future. Alternatives might be for the student to speak about his or her feelings with a friend, or to record them in a journal, which could then be shared with the teacher or someone else, if the student so chooses.
After the group sharing discussion, the teacher might want to generally restate the feelings expressed by the group. This helps children understand that their thoughts and comments are taken seriously, and hearing the teacher gently restate their words can be a very affirming and self-esteem building experience. It is especially important to treat each person's comment with understanding and respect, thereby letting students know that there are no "right" or "wrong" feelings-each individual's response is valid. This approach can provide an important model for the students in their future conversations and interactions with others.
Here is an opportunity for students to be given a glimpse of the deeply feeling aspect of their Jewish teacher's nature. Just as students have taken a risk in speaking openly about their feelings and fears, so the teacher must respond by sharing his or her own feelings, stated from an adult perspective in a way that can reassure, rather than unsettle. This moment also presents teachers with the opportunity to discuss with their students the Jewish way of dealing with intense and potentially dangerous feelings like anger. While we don't deny or ignore them (as the foregoing classroom discussion has, no doubt, just illustrated), we do work to master them so that they are not destructive or harmful to others or to ourselves. The teacher might ask the students for their suggestions about how anger can be managed, based on their own experiences or their observations of others.
Teachers might want to discuss with the class ideas for helping to repair the damage and ease the pain brought about by the recent terrorist acts. These might include creating get-well cards for victims injured in the attacks or organizing tzedakah projects to help raise money for the victims or for rebuilding.
Looking Ahead - Spiritual Renewal
Perhaps teachers and students could create their own healing service as a way of making room for God's presence in their hearts, after the images of so much violence and hatred. The service could include such elements as Debbie Friedman's Mi shebeirach prayer; Psalm 23 (The Lord is My Shepherd); individual prayers or poems written by students; and possibly inspirational quotations from such sources as Day by Day: Reflections on the Themes of Torah, edited by Chaim Stern.
Finally, the lesson of how we conduct ourselves in a world over which we have limited control is an important High Holidays message for both children and adults, and one that works throughout the year. As we approach Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, let us strive to provide comfort, support, and healing to our students, to our loved ones, to our community, and to our nation.
FOR MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS
Allow your students to express their reactions, opinions, fears, anger, confusions and suggestions. The best teachers are master learners, who listen in order to discern the underlying questions and the overarching themes. You may choose to take notes and make it clear that all of you are learners. None of us possesses absolute truth or wisdom. We are all humbled and diminished in the immediate aftermath of terror.
Students may need to hear from you that their feelings are valid, and that their concerns are real. You may not share each one of them or feel them as deeply, but for example, the reactions of the Jews to the destruction of the Temple ranged from suicide to apostasy to separatism to migration to subversion to appeasement. Rather than judge our students, on matters of life and death, we can support and legitimize their questions and their emotions.
Encourage your students to voice their ideas with complete freedom from critique, by the teacher and the other students. Students may share other trauma that they associate with this one. You can learn a great deal about the character of your students from the stories they choose to tell. Some students may prefer to write down their feelings and share it with you. You benefit from as many inputs as possible, so seek to elicit some expression for each one of your students, especially if you live in an area in which you have felt the direct impact of victims. The fact that all of us are engaged in this process together makes a compelling statement. Safety and togetherness are positive, binding forces at all times, but especially when we are vulnerable.
We are not powerless, as individuals or as a people. The way we treat each other has cosmic implications. How do we express anger? How do we engender hatred? What are some antidotes to evil? How do we engage in self-defense? By considering these and similar questions in microcosm, you are creating the context for a constructive, controlled reaction precisely at a time when there can be a proclivity for destructive, uncontrolled behavior. Precisely when we are shaken to the core of our being and knocked off our pinions, it is the time we need to draw on our reservoir of humane behavior. As Jews, we may have unique questions about our ability to empathize with Israel, with the sense of being under siege, waiting for the next act of terror, hoping that people we love will not visit the 'wrong' restaurant. How can we respond as Americans and as Jews to terror?
Brainstorm specific actions in response to terror. Consider writing condolence cards to victims' families, collecting tzedakah, writing a service to commemorate the victims, writing letters to Israeli schools learning about how they cope and what they have learned from their experiences, give blood (if eligible) These possibilities for action demonstrate that hatred does not have to engender further hatred and that all it takes for evil to triumph is for people who are good to do nothing.
Your faculty will need you - your presence and support. Make a special effort to be together with them. All them to listen, acknowledge, share, respond and act. Let them know that they can turn to you and the other professional staff for help, not as experts necessarily, but as other adults and considerate colleagues. Let them know that individual students may need individual attention and that you will do everything possible to provide it. Please share this guide with them and offer to contact appropriate professionals, if the needs go beyond the capacities of your institution.
Your children, perhaps more than anything, will read your reactions and react to them. You may be glued to the television in order to be completely up to date. But, your children need you to spend time with them, to reassure them that you love them, that they are not alone, and that you are there for them when they need you. There is no substitute for being with people you love and who love you. The rhetoric of safety and togetherness pales by contrast to the power of actual safety and togetherness.
Listen to your children
Allow children to express their feelings and concerns. Children will respond differently to these events. Although a child's response may be difficult to listen to, and sometimes difficult to understand, it is important to validate his/her feelings. Children, particularly young children, may act out their feelings rather than verbalize them. Encourage verbal expression.
Allow your child to ask questions. Answer their questions as honestly as you can. "I don't know"is a perfectly acceptable response. Only answer the questions they have asked; it is better for a child to have to ask another question that to hear more than they are prepared for. Children may have many misperceptions in their understanding of the events. Correct them.
Acknowledge the magnitude of what has happened
In the face of a tragedy such as the one that has occurred, there is a great sense of uncertainty. We do not know what will happen, but we know that life in the United States will not be the same again. Reassure your child that while this is true, much in his or her own life will stay constant: you will continue to love and care for them; they will continue to attend school and synagogue; the disruption in their lives will be minimal.
Share your own feelings with your child
It is reasonable to express your own thoughts and feelings in order to validate your child's feelings. However, your words carry great weight with your child. It is important to think carefully before speaking thoughts or feelings that could further upset or confuse your child. Powerful feelings can be scary to your child, but it is necessary for your own mental health to express them. Be sure to make time to talk and share with another adult away from your children.
Respond in ways that will promote your child's well being
In these uncertain times, it is particularly important that we put high priority on our children's needs. Children need to have routine in their life. While it is tempting to relax rules, change our expectations, and otherwise alter our daily life in response to a life-altering event, this is ultimately harmful to our children. While we must acknowledge that our world has changed, we also must do everything within our power to ensure that our children's immediate world stays as constant as possible.
Much has been said about the impact of the media on our children. Right now the television is full of horrific pictures and frightening words that are difficult for all of us to understand. Young children should be shielded from the television to the extent possible. Older children can watch the news but should do so with an adult, who is prepared to discuss the events, respond to the child's questions, and comfort the child.
Help your child take action
Although we may feel powerless, we are commanded to take action. Taking steps to heal those affected by this tragedy will help you and your child feel more in control. Younger children can draw pictures, while older children can write words of healing and comfort. Participate in local efforts to send help to those who have been affected. Pray. Many synagogues will have special prayer services which you and your child can attend together.