Monday after Pittsburgh, Back at School

By Rabbi Philip Graubart

“Why do people hate Jews?”

That was the first question I received at a Monday afternoon gathering of 4th and 5th graders, two days after the massacre. Not for the first time in my career (or, for that matter, my life as a parent), I felt simultaneously that I was in exactly the right place at the right time, compelled to respond with all the wisdom I could muster, but also utterly unequipped. Why do people hate Jews? Good question.

I gave a two-part response. I said that often people in pain, or hurt, or traumatized, or angry at their own circumstances look for others to blame, and that the Other – the minority, the stranger, the one who stands out in his or her difference – is an easy target. I pointed out that Jews aren’t the only people targeted for scapegoating, that in America many different minorities bear the brunt of other people’s fear and frustration. But I also admitted that I didn’t know the full answer, that hate is dreadful, but also oddly mysterious, and that some questions are too big for any one rabbi, or even any one school filled with wise teachers. The students seemed as relieved by my admission of ignorance as they were of my actual response. It’s comforting sometimes to know that no one has all the answers.

Other big questions came up. What makes people hate? What are Nazis and why are they still active so many years after the Holocaust? How do we know that we’re safe here? We spent a lot of time talking about how easily hate can make a home in the human heart, but we can fight it – overcome it – with love, empathy, and joy. The whole encounter was a beautifully heartbreaking display of naiveté, sadness and goodness so pure, it felt distilled to an intoxicating level.

Upper school students had similar big ideas on their minds, mixed with practical reality. Why are there Nazis, but also where exactly are they, right now? Why do people hate, but also what kind of gun did he use, and how did he get it? Several students wondered whether it was proper or even ethical for us to focus so singularly on Jewish suffering when so many other groups and individuals also suffer. I gave them my best analogy, that while I’m deeply fond of all of my students, I love my own two sons more. Individuals coalesce into affinity groups: family, tribe, religion, nation. It’s a natural, gratifying element of the human experience. Is it ethical? Great question. Probably yes, since we needn’t exhaust all our loving concern on our families or tribes. There’s always more room in the heart; that’s one of God’s greatest miracles.

Then there was politics. I work at an amazingly diverse school where, unlike most non-Orthodox Jewish day schools, the political opinions reflect the rest of America, rather than the Jewish community. So guns came up, and the caravan, elections, political rhetoric, President Trump. But, maybe it was my imagination, or just the solemnity of the day, but I sensed a rare tentativeness in how the students articulated their political opinions, as if they were formulating them for the first time, thinking things through with a newly open heart.

Overall, I was unsurprised but still intensely impressed at the intelligence, wisdom, rigorous curiosity, and compassion of all our students. All of us at the school – faculty, administration, staff, students – got through the day by talking to each other about Pittsburgh, sharing our deepest thoughts, fears and words of comfort. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be that awful day.

The highlight came when a fourth grade student reminded me of Mr. Rogers’ words – during times of tragedy look for the helpers. The Jews of Pittsburgh and the Tree of Life victims enjoyed the support of millions of helpers, locally, around the world, and at our school, where we’re gearing up to do our share. I shared with the students that just a few days before, I’d been in a bicycle accident where I broke my hand and badly scraped my face. Before my bike even skidded to a halt, I was surrounded by helpers I’d never met – total strangers – offering first aid, wiping away the blood. Look for the helpers. Even in a broken time, they’re always there.

Rabbi Philip Graubart is Chief Jewish Officer & Director, Advanced Institute for Judaic Studies, at San Diego Jewish Academy.