In the wake of the terror attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, American Jews still had to go back to work and school shortly thereafter, leading to difficult conversations and a need for resilience during a very difficult time.
The issue of balancing responsibilities and a range of emotions was especially highlighted at local Jewish day schools.
At schools, teachers and students alike were shaken by the tragic events that unfolded in Israel, and it caused the school communities to rally in support of each other and Israel with letter writing, prayers and acts of service for peers in need as they navigated a challenging situation.
“I think everyone is just in shock. And so, there’s been a big understanding that we’re not operating as usual. Every day has included some sort of opportunity for students to say Tehillim or to do some type of activity for Israeli soldiers,” Berman Hebrew Academy Director of Marketing and Communications Sarah Sicherman said. “There will certainly be a time when we’re going to be getting back into our routines, but this will always be present.”
The week following the attacks, Berman students began writing piles of letters to soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces and raising money through a 24-hour Tehillim marathon, where students took shifts continuously reciting Tehillim in the school’s Beit Midrash and via Zoom after school ended.
“One of our alumni lives in Israel, but she was here for Sukkot. And she came and worked with the Lower School students to make these letters and she’s going to bring them back with her and deliver them directly to soldiers when she gets back to Israel. Hopefully early next week, assuming her flights can get back,” Sicherman said.
Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School in D.C. also had a letter writing program for students, with these letters directed at their peers in Israel, rather than just soldiers. Milton also organized dedicated spaces to talk about the war during lunchtime and an assembly to discuss some topics related to world events.
Students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in D.C. dealt with the tragedy through prayer during their school days, with older students having a history session about the conflict during their lunch hour, and middle-school students having a Q&A session about the current situation after several days had passed.
All the schools were focused on ensuring that there were grade-appropriate conversations, which meant that students in the lower schools didn’t directly discuss the conflict. Teachers would answer questions younger students had, but the consensus was those conversations were dealt with in quiet, one-on-one discussions.
“Programming that included conversation about what is actually happening took place with grades four and up. At age-appropriate levels they have been given some details, such as people are hurting Israelis and we’re doing everything we can to protect them … And then as students get older and can understand more, the conversations get bigger,” Sicherman said.
Teachers have also been struggling over the past several days, having to deal with their own emotions while still performing their jobs as educators.
Milton Gottesman Head of School Dr. Deborah Skolnick-Einhorn said that teachers have been doing their best to help each other through this difficult time.
Dr. Skolnick-Einhorn said that teachers have been bringing in coffee for their Israeli coworkers there’s been a staff challah bake in support of Israel, and teachers are monitoring each other and stepping in to watch each other’s classes if they need a break at any point.
She said it’s been a true community effort to ensure that the staff is doing well and can be at their best and in the right frame of mind to tackle students’ questions and their own feelings while at work.
On top of dealing with issues inside the building, all schools have been warning parents about the dangers of social media due to a largely unfiltered amount of graphic, violent and hateful content that’s been proliferating across multiple platforms pertaining to the terrorist attacks.
Milton Gottesman shared a warning from the Israel Ministry of Health in a letter to their parents about this issue, even despite their community largely not having technology, such as phones, for their younger children.
“I recognize that it may not yet be directly applicable for many of our families, but this is a critical moment to be hypervigilant about our children’s (and our own) internet and social media intake. These images cannot be unseen,” Milton Gottesman said in the letter.
It was a sentiment echoed by Berman as well, with Sicherman saying that they’ve strongly urged parents and children alike to not look at or share graphic content because it can be psychologically distressing and damaging.
“I think it was an Israeli psychologist who said something along the lines of these images are beyond what anyone’s soul can handle. I heard this morning something about the fact that these images put you into the place of despair, and when you’re in despair, you can’t move to action,” Sicherman said.
The schools emphasized this careful monitoring as an important part of not being harmed further by the events, and that same sentiment can be applied to increased security concerns of antisemitic violence following the attack.
All three schools were emphatic that there was no credible threat at the moment but said there was an increased security presence and communication with law enforcement to ensure the safety of students and faculty.
“While there is no specific threat in our area or to our school at this time due to the war in Israel, we have implemented measures in addition to our regular comprehensive security measures and will elevate our security further if needed,” Charles E. Smith said in a statement.
With all the conflict, emotions and mental strain, it’s important for students to know they’re safe and they can support the people of Israel, where they have deep ties.
“We’ve just continued with them the love that our community has for Israel, talking to them about how wonderful Israel is as a country and our deep connection there,” Sicherman said.