“Dr. Mitzmacher…what if Israel is destroyed? What happens to the Jewish People? What happens to us?”
This is a real question that a child – multiple children – asked me at a Middle School Town Hall on Tuesday morning. In 2023. Seventy-five years after the modern State of Israel came into existence. And I have been gutted ever since…
I can tell you what I said, hoping and believing it to be true. I said that he should not be trying to carry the weight of such a thing right now. That as awful as it all is, and still may be, that he doesn’t have to worry that there won’t be an Israel. And then I paused. And then I said that it is also true that for thousands of years there was a Jewish People without an Israel and that the true lesson of Jewish History is that we survive, we carry forward, we rebuild, and we thrive. No matter what. Always and forever. Am Yisrael Chai. That’s what I said. And at no point in my life did I ever believe for a nanosecond that it might not be true. And in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe it now. But my belief is wrapped in fear and doubt.
This is not a blog post where I share resources.
I have been overwhelmed with requests from Jewish teachers in public and private schools, from Jewish parents from the larger Ottawa Jewish Community, and from public and private schools themselves – all looking for resources, for ideas, and in some cases for direct help in teaching, in facilitating experiences, talking with kids and families, etc. And it is my pleasure to be of service. I’d like to think the “Community” in the Ottawa Jewish Community School is more than just an adjective describing who is in our school, but for who we serve as a school. I will continue to do whatever I can in support of larger Jewish Ottawa.
This is not a blog post where I make you feel better.
I have a GoogleDoc whose entire purpose is keeping track of who in our OJCS Extended Family has been called into duty, kidnapped or murdered. How is that possible? The only thing worse than having to create the document is to have to keep editing it, and not for the better. Because of our school’s significant number of Israeli families and faculty, there is not one child or adult at OJCS who does not personally know someone who is directly impacted by the ongoing tragedy in Israel. Not one. Consciously or not; known or not – these last days have been a delicate dance between the need to provide our students with a sense of normalcy and safety and joy, and the reality that many of our students – and parents and teachers – are struggling with sadness and trauma. I don’t know that we are getting it right, but we are doing our best.
The hardest thing we ask our teachers to do is to come to work with broken and heavy hearts and be present for our children. For some the distraction of work is welcome, for some the smiles of children a salve, but for most the anxiety and the fear and the pain are right below the surface. All through the week, teachers have had to pause, to take a break so they can break down, and to put themselves back together. Spontaneous moments of solidarity, wordless hugs and tearful nods of mutual recognition dot the day. I have never been more proud to work in a Jewish school. For those of us who believe education is a calling, it is to this that we have been called. And our teachers not only answer the call, they do so with love.
This is not a blog post about security.
Those conversations are internally focused for all the right reasons. There is nothing more important than ensuring the physical and psychological wellbeing of our students. Our entire concentric circle of community from school outwards to country is united in this effort and it makes me proud to be a Jew and a soon-to-be Canadian.
This is going to get harder…
And I don’t just mean the war effort on the ground in Israel, but yes. Each day that goes on we have to calibrate the correct amount of space for this to occupy in school. Too much space can be overwhelming. Not enough space can be disrespectful and tone-deaf. Different grades will require a different calibration; individual children will differ in their needs and wants. “Standing With Israel” today feels like a clear call to action. It will likely be less clear what it means day-to-day, the longer this tragedy unfolds. All I can tell you is that we are paying attention and we are trying to get it right.
What can we do?
The impulse when faced with such overwhelming feelings is to do something. But what? Social media is presenting a dizzying, and sometimes conflicting, array of donation opportunities and drives. As we try to move forward, our school will be paying attention to the following buckets of activities:
- Providing accurate, age-and-stage appropriate information.
- Creating space for reflection, questions and sharing of feelings.
- Offering direct service to students, teachers and families who are coping with trauma.
- Praying – using contemporary prayers and blessings for Israel, the IDF, the kidnapped and the missing, etc., and traditional modes, such as the chanting of Tehillim (Psalms) as is done during times of communal distress.
- As appropriate, raising money, writing cards, and taking other hands-on measures in direct support of the local and international Israeli community.
But for now, on this day when hate has been called down upon us, I choose otherwise. I choose this school – safe, open, and proudly Zionistic throughout its entire history, but never more than now. I choose this community – standing in unambiguous solidarity with its Israeli and Jewish brothers and sisters. I choose this country – whose political leadership of all parties have offered the strongest rebuke of terrorism and support for Israel that I can remember hearing. I choose a life filled with Judaism and suffused with Israel. And I choose love. Tonight after we light the Shabbat candles, my wife and I will bless our daughter as we have done each Shabbat of her life. We do this knowing how lucky we are to be able to do it, grateful for our blessings, devastated for those families no longer with parents to bless children, or children to be blessed. That’s all I can do. And I pray it is enough.
Am Yisrael Chai.