Oct 17, 2023 JNS

By Faygie Holt

“Everyone wants to do something,” says the head of a Jewish day school in San Diego, which has partnered with an Israeli school near the border with Gaza that was attacked.

High-schoolers at the San Diego Jewish Academy participated in web-based programs last spring with peers in the Jewish Federation of San Diego’s “sister city,” Sha’ar HaNegev, in southern Israel. Using videos and emails to bridge the 10-hour time difference, students at the San Diego community school and in Israel created soil-less, hydroponic garden systems for both schools.

On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists attacked Sha’ar HaNegev as part of a brutal rampage that has left more than 1,400 Israelis dead, with many others injured, kidnapped and missing. Like Jewish day schools across the country and the world, the San Diego school is struggling to help its community process and respond to the bloodiest day in Jewish history since the Holocaust.

“Everyone wants to do something,” Zvi Weiss, the head of school and a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, told JNS. “The younger kids are making cards, and we are raising money for our sister community.”

The school held assemblies and offered programs to help students de-stress, including yoga and expressive art-making, and therapists and therapy dogs were on hand. The latter was a nod to Sha’ar HaNegev, where students could play with dogs during recess, said Weiss. A student organized a morning Shacharit prayer service on Oct. 9 that was packed, he added.

Weiss told JNS that he’s been in “constant contact” with his counterpart in Sha’ar HaNegev, who has been driving around the country visiting impacted students who survived the attacks and have relocated.

“I told my colleague that I can’t imagine what it will be like when you go back to school,” Weiss told JNS. “His response to me was, ‘I can’t even think in those terms, right now. I have to focus on the next five minutes.’”

Children and adolescents seek information and guidance from trusted adults in their lives when they are scared or upset, according to Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, a community school in Rockville, Md.

“As educators at school, we can help students cope with their fear, stress and anxiety around these attacks by establishing a sense of safety and giving them agency to express their feelings openly in a supportive environment,” he told JNS.

Educators can read between the lines if they listen to students, according to David Bryfman, CEO of the Jewish Education Project.

“If a child asks how Hamas got through the gate, the kid may really be asking, ‘How do I feel safe? What is my security like?’” Bryfman, who holds a doctorate in education, told JNS. “Kids have real questions and real feelings and don’t assume that what you want to tell them is what they really need to hear.”

It is also important to give teachers “time to process so they have the headspace to teach,” Bryfman said. “If we learned anything from COVID, it is that the mental health of our teachers is paramount for anything else to work.”

Stateside, students at many Jewish day schools have created cards for IDF members and terror victims, among many other efforts to demonstrate Jewish unity and solidarity, and to mourn for those who were killed, as well as send best wishes to the injured and captured.

“People want to figure out together how to support their students, their faculty, staff and the families that are part of the school community,” Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, told JNS.

“Everyone is connected to the horrors and the loss that are going on and continuing to unfold,” he added. “People are experiencing it in very different ways.”

At many schools, Israeli staff and faculty have been called up to serve in the IDF. One teacher shared a video message with his students from the border with Gaza. Dressed in an Israeli uniform, the teacher told his students to be strong. “Am Yisrael Chai,” he said, the “nation of Israel lives.”

There are also many Israeli-born students and parents at day schools across the country. To best address wide-ranging needs at different schools, Prizmah held a series of video meetings with school officials to share curricula ideas, common concerns, and challenges facing students and educators.

“The current crisis in Israel is overwhelming and profoundly intense,” according to Anne Lanski, CEO of The iCenter, an Illinois-based education program that connects students to Israel. “We face the challenge of our own emotions as well as our educational responsibilities.”

“As educators, we need to be supported personally, to enable us to educate others,” Lanski told JNS. “We need the courage to be learner-centered and to listen first. In times of darkness, it is ever more important to educate towards hope and possibility.”