The Trauma-Aware Jewish Day School

Now that I have had eighteen hours of rabbinical school under my belt, I find myself becoming a bit self-conscious whenever I make a connection between something I am learning in school and the work we do here at OJCS each and every day.  I am so barely into the first baby steps towards becoming a rabbi that it almost feels chutzpahdik to make mention of it at all.  (At my current rate of taking classes, I can definitely pencil in my ordination for the Spring of 2037.)  However, I am becoming a rabbi for a reason, and as I explained when I first shared this news, it was both likely and desirable that it lend a new perspective on my work.

One of the books for the current course I am taking is Wounds into Wisdom by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.  It is a terrific book that deals with the phenomenon of “collective trauma” and its impact on future generations.  Without doing any of her work justice, it perhaps could be best understood in a Jewish context by recognizing that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors may very well suffer – consciously or subconsciously – the effects of trauma, even if they did not experience the original trauma.  In the context of my course, where all my classmates are either already or will likely be serving in a pulpit or chaplaincy, or otherwise engaged in some form of pastoral counseling, the application is a bit more obvious.  You will inevitably have congregants who suffer from trauma and, thus, let’s spend some time recognizing what trauma looks like and how one might think about managing/addressing/navigating it.

For me, the dots connected differently, but no less powerfully.

We are now into our second year of pandemic schooling.  “Collective trauma” is not an abstract idea that only applies to the victims of genocides and terror attacks, it is literally our lives.  For over a year, our students, parents, teachers and community have been – and continue to – live in and with trauma.  I think this is something we know intuitively, but if you want a little evidence, let me share with you a chart I shared with our Educational Leadership Team this week:

Classic Trauma Reactions

Engagement                       dissociation ←→ vigilance

Control                                 passive ←→ urgent 

Empowerment                  victimized ←→ hyper-resilient

Emotion                              withdrawn ←→ hyper-arousal

Patterning                          amnesia ←→ recall & repeat

Does this not sound like, I don’t know, everyone you know right now (including yourself)?

I see these responses all around me, all the time.  I see it in the normally vivacious student who is unusually withdrawn.  I see it in the normally laid back parent who has grown helicopter wings.  I see it in the normally contained teacher for whom everything is now on fire.  I see all the reverses as well.  I see different reactions from different people at different times in the face of different circumstances.  I see it in the parking lot and I see it in emails and I see it on social media.  And I most definitely see it in myself.

There are techniques and methods from the worlds of psychology, counseling and pastoral care that have proven to have some success in moving individual people through trauma.  When it comes to collective trauma there is much less to fall back on.  (When it comes to inherited collective trauma, even less than that, thus Firestone’s book.)  When it comes to COVID-based trauma…

When I think about all those way-too-long “Weekly Update” emails I sent last spring to our parents and each blog post I have written as part of “The Coronavirus Diaries” series, I can see that I keep coming back to one saving gracenote – empathy.  That’s what I mean when I say that we have to give each other space to make mistakes.  It is what I mean when I encourage and express gratitude for patience and flexibility.  Empathy.  Empathy for the collective trauma of pandemic living doesn’t necessarily change outcomes, nor does it serve as an excuse.  It doesn’t mean that we necessarily do anything differently.  But it does help.

If in a Jewish context we can employ empathy by keeping the notion of b’tzelem elohim – the idea that each and every one of us is made in the image of God, that we each share a spark of the divine – front of mind, perhaps we can find the strength to take a breath and assume the best of each other.

At least we can try…

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

One thought on “The Trauma-Aware Jewish Day School”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *