After Aug. 10, 1999, when a white supremacist went on
a shooting spree at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Abraham J. Heschel Day School quickly beefed up security at its Northridge campus, installing a high-tech video scanner in the school parking lot and posting an armed guard at an entrance kiosk.
But the events of Sept. 11 have raised the bar yet higher in terms of campus security. Heschel director Shirley Levine has now hired an additional guard. And on all school-owned buses, the Heschel name has been replaced with cryptic initials "AJH."
"It is sad," says Joan Marks, principal of Heschel's elementary school. "It just makes me sick."
In the wake of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Jewish day schools throughout the Los Angeles area are now looking for additional ways to foster a sense of safety on their campuses. Schools have increased their security staffs, changed pickup and drop-off procedures and become even more vigilant about strangers.
On Oct. 16, Temple Beth Am's Pressman Academy in Los Angeles invited parents to a briefing by the local senior lead officer from the Los Angeles Police Department. Staffers at Kadima Academy, which leases its Woodland Hills campus from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), sent away an inspector under contract to the LAUSD because he had no written authorization for his visit. Valley Beth Shalom Day School in Encino has instituted an elaborate system of guarded gates and identification stickers; Head of School Brenda Weinstock, recently found herself boldly halting a shabby delivery truck that seemed out of place on the premises. "A lot of parents saw me jump in front of the truck," Weinstock told The Journal. "They were very impressed."
But teachers and administrators are struggling to balance security concerns with the message that school is a safe haven. Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, insists that on Sept. 11, "the children who went to school were better off than the ones who stayed home and watched their parents crying in front of the television set."
At every school, psychologists and counselors have been on the alert for particularly troubled children. For example, Emanuel Academy of Beverly Hills has just held a parent meeting at which school psychologist Ilona Strasser gave professional advice on how to talk to youngsters about the ongoing crisis.
Though most school personnel agree that their students are coping well, anxieties continue to bubble to the surface. Some of Jo-Carole Oberstein's sixth-graders at Valley Beth Shalom, having watched the school secretary put on gloves to open campus mail for fear of anthrax contamination, are suddenly worried about receiving letters. Joan Marks says that a full month after the tragedies, a few of her Heschel students belatedly started having nightmares. Marks also recalls a canny fourth-grader's reaction to the school's heightened security posture: "You tell us we're safe here. So why did you get the extra guard?"
Ed Eiseman, principal of general studies at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, expresses a philosophy common among educators: "We're trying to keep things normal within the framework of the school. The students talked about [the terror attacks] in class, and we moved on."
Still, in most schools there has been a marked emphasis on classroom activities that allow children to express their feelings. Art projects have provided an opportunity to release tangled emotions. Rabbi Larry Scheindlin, headmaster of Sinai Akiva Academy in Los Angeles, has witnessed some of his youngest students building skyscrapers with blocks, and then flying toy planes into them. To him, in such instances, it's important to figure out the questions that are tacitly being asked, and then "give the kids the explanations they're looking for," he says.
It's also important to help them learn to cope with adult-sized horrors by providing them with meaningful activity on their own level. That's why so many classes have sent cards and letters to firefighters, police officers and hospital workers involved with the tragedies.
Several Jewish day schools have channeled their energies toward fundraising on behalf of the victims. At Heschel, students voted to dedicate their tzedakah money through the month of December to this cause, and Heschel's middle-schoolers are crafting beaded American flag lapel pins to raise additional cash. The Kadima student body made red, white and blue looped ribbons, to sell at a suggested price of $2 apiece, with all proceeds going to the American Red Cross. The response has been overwhelming. Thanks to a matching grant offered by the employer of a Kadima parent, the children have now raised $7,000.
The student council at Valley Beth Shalom decided to name their recent Rosh Chodesh assembly "Patriotic Day." They asked everyone to dress in red, white and blue, invited a firefighter to be an honored guest, and presented a check for more than $4,000 -- much of it coming from kids' piggy banks -- to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Victims of Terror fund.
These efforts were well under way before President Bush's Oct. 11 request that all American schoolchildren mail in $1 to help starving young Afghans. Most administrators say they hardly feel comfortable about initiating another fund drive. But Sinai Akiba's Scheindlin hopes that some of the proceeds from his school's upcoming read-a-thon will be channeled toward the newly launched "America's Fund for Afghan Children."
"I am sure that some people will find it controversial, but I think it's a wonderful thing," Scheindlin says. It is important to him that his students recognize the unavoidable fallout of the current U.S. foray into Afghanistan: "I want kids to know that going to war is not a football game."
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy, is taking another tack. Concerned that the events of Sept. 11 have created fertile ground for negative stereotypes, he wants to see his older students enter into a dialogue with children from a local Muslim school. Malkus finds in the current atmosphere "a sense that there's an opportunity here to dispel some myths and build some bridges."