September 13, 2001
What Do You Tell the Kids?
At Pressman Academy, teachers field questions about bombing.
So what do you say to children when hate explodes in our world, taking with it thousands of lives?
That is what educators at Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am dealt with Tuesday, after they made an early morning decision to keep the Westside Conservative day school open, even as other Jewish day schools across Los Angeles canceled classes for the day.
"Once we were confident about security, we decided it was better to have the kids together and doing something than to have them at home, just watching TV and getting more and more nervous about what happened, and not really being able to respond," said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman. "We could give them a place and framework to talk about this that was safe and nurturing and supportive."
Many classes began late, as parents, apparently wavering over whether to send their children to school, brought students in later then usual. By midday, the upper grades had about 90 percent attendance, while the preschool was at about 50 percent. About 85 percent of the school's 400 kids in early childhood through eighth grade came for the day.
The decision about what to tell the students varied from grade to grade, using the developmental stages of the students and the questions they asked as prompts for where to carry the discussion.
Malkus instructed the teachers to answer the kids' questions and to let discussions on the issue eat into class time.
For all the grades from kindergarten on up, the day began with special prayers.
"Our message to all of them was that when sad things or terrible things happen, there are ways to respond, and one way Jews respond is with special prayers," Malkus said.
In the younger grades, that meant singing "Oseh Shalom," asking God to bring peace and hope. In third through eighth grade, students recited the prayer for the government of the United States, portions of the Yizkor memorial prayer and the blessing of "Baruch Dayan Emet," blessed is the Judge of truth, traditionally said upon hearing of someone's death. They ended prayers with a "Kaddish."
"Everybody is entitled to be sad, and together we can deal with it better than individually," said Aliza Liran, Judaic Studies principal. "Praying together is a great way to take off the burden." Uppermost on the minds of sixth- through eighth-graders seemed the concrete and factual details. As Malkus and Rabbi Joel Rembaum, spiritual leader of Beth Am and headmaster of the school, shared news they had heard, the students were eager to have rumors that had been circulating confirmed or dispelled.
"I heard there were probably 50,000 people killed," one boy offered.
"Is it true they are planning attacks on all the major cities?" a girl asked.
Students wanted to know whether flying would be safe again, if Los Angeles were a target.
Some wanted to determine what connection the tragedy had to Jews and Israel, and one student simply wanted to know if school would be open the next day.
Rembaum and Marcus did their best to confirm only the known details, which were still sketchy Tuesday afternoon. They encouraged students to listen to the news carefully but not to jump to conclusions or believe all the rumors they heard.
Rembaum tried to open up the discussion at another level. "Is there anything else about this bothering you?" he asked the 50 or so students gathered in the synagogue's chapel. "Are there any moral issues you want to ask about?"
One girl raised her hand. "How did they hijack all those planes?" she asked.
The existential and theological questions apparently would be left for another time. Malkus said interest in such concrete information is in keeping with the developmental expectations for these ages.
Still, he acknowledged, "We felt it was important to have a communal gathering, but most of the work is done in the classroom."
In Amy Ament's sixth-grade class, after a long discussion of the logistics of the events, students came to the bigger questions.
The class discussed how God could let this happen, and why people thought it was OK to kill themselves and other people.
After talking about the tragedy for part of the class, Marlynn Dorff tried to steer her seventh-grade students toward their regular Mishna lesson.
Midway through, a boy raised his hand. Would the people who did this go to heaven? he wanted to know.
Dorff said they would come back to his important question at the end of the lesson, at which point they discussed the Jewish concept of the afterlife.
While some classes were sidetracked by the days' events, many lessons seemed to be proceeding as usual for the second week of school, especially in the younger grades. A first-grade teacher drew a row of alefs on the board, and sixth-grade students went into a round robin to check each other's homework. A necessary dose of normalcy seemed to be in order.
Teachers knew the questions would come soon -- yet how do you explain the hate?
"You can't talk about hate, because then you lose hope, and what we need to teach them is about hope," said Andy Polsky, elementary school principal at Pressman. "So we say today is a sad day, today is a difficult day. It's a hard day to be a human being today, but we hope tomorrow will be better," he said.
"They have to see things are going to be better, otherwise what's in it for them to make the world a better place?"