By Rabbi Dovid Fox
Another Jewish community has sustained a bloody attack that left Jews everywhere reeling. On Tuesday, a small enclave of Hasidic Jews in Jersey City, New Jersey had their worlds shaken and disrupted during a frightening siege. Schools were on lockdown, four people were murdered and people from around the Jewish world suddenly were on high alert yet again.
Whether overheard in adult conversations, picked up on radio or TV news broadcasts, or through word-of-mouth in the schoolyard, many of our children are undoubtedly aware of this truly horrific event.
In my line of work with Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline, I have sadly encountered these situations all too frequently. From Pittsburgh to Poway to Jersey City, senseless anti-Semitism knows no bounds.
In the wake of this devastation in our community, we — as parents, educators and community leaders — must address the emotional and psychological impact such incidents can have on our children.
The following are some general guidelines for those of us asking “What do we tell our children now?”
Talk with them.
Do not assume children will speak up if they need to; be proactive. Ask them if they have heard about the event. Encourage them to dialogue with you about what they know, and what they do not know, at a level, pace and degree that is appropriate to their age and maturity. Respond to their questions, correct misinformation and provide reassurance about their safety.
Younger children need to know that they are safe and it is safe for them to voice their feelings.
Children need to ask their questions and be given short answers that satisfy and are sensible. Listen attentively when they share their views. Validate their concerns.
Ensure that your child is maintaining a regular routine.
Eating, sleeping, attending school and other responsibilities are important for growing minds (and for all of us). Structure is healing. Normalcy is soothing. Be patient and gentle, but help them return to regular functioning as soon as possible.
A person’s initial reactions will change with time, and it is helpful to point out to children that what they are now experiencing is a normal stage, and that they likely will have different thoughts, feelings and attitudes as the days pass. Be an open door for each child to speak with you and check in with them regularly. Do not assume that a child’s silence means that they are not struggling. Do not “pathologize” and assume that a child’s reactions are indicative of deeper problems.
Your job is not to act as judge and jury.
Your responsibility is to educate and support your child, not to editorialize about the crime. Assert to the pondering child that murder is wrong — focusing less on the perpetrators of the crime and more on the concept of right and wrong. Refrain from offering your opinions about the perpetrators, which only serve to distract from the larger issues that may need your attention.
Steer clear of misleading, moralizing, disciplinary or judgmentally toned messages.
Now is not the moment to inspire or scold your child for their reactions, feelings or thoughts in any way. Now is the time to support and nurture them and console their fears and sadness. Stay focused on the present.
Give your children space to process.
Allow your children to have their own reactions, but aim to help them regulate their thoughts and behaviors. Offer them the opportunity to discuss their confusion with a trusted authority or mentor. You are there to guide them, to educate them, to encourage and inspire them.
Remember that the ways in which children are “walked through” a crisis or trauma will shape the ways in which they respond to subsequent life challenges. Your words, your demeanor, your honesty, your sincerity and your respectfulness can teach them resiliency and can equip them with tools and skills for coping and handling the stresses they will encounter later in life.
Rabbi Dovid Fox is the director of interventions and community education at Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the officers and boards of the Jewish Publishing Group, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia or the Jewish Exponent.