A Jewish Educator Responds to the Pittsburgh Tragedy

Screen capture: YouTube

By David Bryfman

Respect for the mysteries and the ups and downs of that difficult task of growing up.
Respect for the here and now, for the present.
How will she be able to get on in life tomorrow,
If we are not allowing her to live a conscious, responsible life today?
Respect for every moment,
Because each will pass and never return.
Janusz Korczak

My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. I have grown up on her memories and there is little doubt in my mind that I am a Jewish educator because of her. I never thought I would have to write this article in 2018, or maybe I did, but I suppose I chose to ignore the possibility.

Some have and will historicize, spiritualize, psychoanalyze, and politicize the tragedy in Pittsburgh. We need to focus on the educational challenges that lie before us.

How do we as Jewish educators begin to comprehend the tragedy in Pittsburgh in a way that can be productive for our learners and for ourselves?

1. We must build sanctuaries.

As 11 lives were taken from us in a sanctuary, it is incumbent upon us all to build safe places for our students and their families. This is both a physical and a spiritual metaphor, and it must be taken seriously. Even if we are skeptical, wary, or scared ourselves we must ensure that our learners are invited into spaces that are warm, welcoming and loving. Why? Because, invoking the words of Dr. Betsy Stone from our agency’s webinar in response to Pittsburgh last week, “what other alternative do we have?”

2. Listen, dont project.

Expressing emotions is not the same as projecting them upon our learners. And our role as Jewish educators is to allow the students to bring themselves to these conversations, for us to absorb their emotions and then to respond to their reactions accordingly. They do not come to us as empty slates and they will all react differently. There will be generational, familial, social, political, developmental differences in the way people react to events such as Pittsburgh, and our role as educators must be to make room for all perspectives and not project a single vantage point on to our learners.

3. Hate and Terror cannot win.

We must promise our children that we will strive to build a world better than the one in which we currently live. The killing of even a single life is horrific. But when one individual, or even a group of individuals espouses hatred, it is the response of the rest of us that really matters. Terrorists win when they are able to instill disproportionate fear in the world – and so too are the tactics of white supremacists, racists, and other extremists. It is incumbent upon us as educators to ensure that, every time we speak about the hundreds of neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, or the extremists who murdered Christians in a black church in Charleston, Sikhs in Milwaukee, LGBTQ people in Orlando, or Jews in Pittsburgh, we also speak about the millions who have stood up to protest these tragedies. In doing so we do not belittle the violence but ensure that our students also internalize the overwhelming support, friendship and kindness that is in this world.

4. AntiSemitism is real.

There are those in the world who dislike and even hate Jews. It is difficult to explain to my young Jewish children (ages 6 and 9) why complete strangers despise them. I can talk to them about crazy individuals or ignorant groups. But I can also talk to them about centuries of persecution and hatred. As much as I would prefer not having to do so, when it is appropriate we must accept and discuss anti-Semitism as a reality. We do this not to instill fear, and certainly not as a mechanism to guilt anyone into wanting to be Jewish. We teach anti-Semitism because it has existed and continues to persist in this world. We also teach our students to be proud Jews. We teach them about our rich tradition, our faith and values, our language, our miracles and achievements – these are what instill pride. There is space for both the pain and the joy in Jewish education – but the desired outcomes for teaching both should not be conflated.

5. Remain optimistic.

In a rare moment of vulnerability my father turned to me after 9-11 and said, “I can’t believe that this is the world which we have left you.” If one views the world through its divisions, vitriol and incivility, one could become paralyzed with despair. But education can and must always be an enterprise of optimism. Central to any educator must be the core belief that education can transform lives and make the world a better place. It is that commitment that we as Jewish educators must continue to affirm today and every day for ourselves and our learners.

I conclude by invoking again the words of Janusz Korczak, a man known more for the way he died rather than the way he lived and educated others.

We demand respect for a pair of bright eyes
A smooth brow and youthful effort and reliance.
Why should a dull look, a wrinkled brow, coarse grey hair and stooping resignation
Be more worthy of respect?
The same goes for the sunrise and the sunset,
It applies equally to the morning and the evening prayer.
A new generation is growing up and a new wave is rising
They are coming carrying their faults and virtues.

David Bryfman is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project. Jewish educators should click here for further educational resources in response to the Pittsburgh tragedy.