First responders have been, rightly so, the focus of national attention since the terrorist attacks at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this past April. We have marveled at men and women tearing down barricades, running in the direction of smoke and chaos, unmoved by possible personal injury, in order to care for the needs of others.
In Boston, these first responders were medical technicians and police, firefighters and doctors, but also athletes who, just completing 26.2 miles of running and physical exertion, immediately proceeded to donate blood. There were bystanders and spectators holding down blood-soaked tourniquets, and people large and small carrying the wounded to safety and security.
While I have read much about how the first responders represent not only the best of America but also embody the truest of Jewish values, I wondered where these people come from? What makes them who they are? And what do we need to do to “grow” more of them in the future?
Are they the product of a certain environment or home life? Did they receive some type of education along their life journey, whether in their schools or more informally, that has crafted their sense of purpose under crisis? Or, are these individuals just hard-wired this way? Do they have cognitive resources and structures that help properly guide their responses to such challenging moments?
There has been much cognitive research over the past 20 years regarding a subset of us humans who, under extreme duress, seem to become calmer and calmer. Instead of their hearts racing, which creates the famous flee reaction in humans, these individuals find their blood pressure dropping, their breathing steadying and their decision-making skills sharpened. Their limbic systems, largely responsible for critical, instinctive, non-conscious decision making, trigger differently under duress than those of the rest of us normal panickers.
Special exams to test for these skills have been crafted by the likes of the military, the National Football League in evaluating future quarterback draft picks and for doctors interested in emergency medicine. However, these individuals are few and represent a small percentage of the human population. They could not possibly account for the sheer number of individuals who, at the right moment, seem to make the most morally desirable decisions under the most strenuous of circumstances.
I believe that there are ways that we can, at a very early age, begin to address these skills in our Jewish schools. Crisis management, either through man-made or natural disaster, seems to have become a consistently burning issue in newspaper headlines and our communities. Instead of waiting to see if these skills blindly suss themselves out under terrible and stressful circumstances, let’s imagine that our schools and Jewish community can make such training a critical part of how we frame a great Jewish education.
Emergency medical training for our children should begin early. I believe that even first-graders are capable of learning how to respond to circumstances and challenges in order to help those in need. Instead of treating fire and lock-down drills as a matter for adults, we should include our youngest first responders as active partners in this process.
“What would you say on the phone to the 911 people if there was a problem?” “If your friend next to you had a big cut, what should you do?” “What words would you use to help if someone next to you was scared?”
By letting children know that they are not only capable but can be part of the process of helping others, we instill the best notions of moral response in their minds. They will feel empowered and better able to see that there are positive ways to be of service, helping during the most trying and frightening experiences.
For older students, emergency preparedness should be a mandatory part of their application process to our Jewish high schools. Just as they must produce transcripts, recommendations and test scores, future students should have to be able to show certification in CPR and first aid training before day one of ninth grade.
Our high schools also should fully include students in emergency planning for their campuses as part of critical leadership and team training. Just think about how sporting events or field trips or Shabbatons would have a completely different feel if students knew that they were responsible for each other’s immediate well-being.
It could be required that student certifications and additional training be completely up to date as one of their graduation requirements. This would be a forward thinking community standard which every school, regardless of denomination, could happily mandate.
Beyond the lessons in leadership, civic responsibility and confidence building, it would speak volumes to our students regarding Judaism — not just as a theology or way of life, but in seeing the Jewish people as a “Nation of First Responders.”