How Do We Speak to Our Kids After Tragedy? First, We Listen

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What am I going to tell the kids about this?

As an educator, that’s the first thing that pops into my mind every time something tragic happens in the news or IN the community. I’m going to walk into class and it is going to be the elephant in the room. I can ignore it, and assume that they “had it covered” by saying Tehillim during davening that morning; after all, how much does one really want to keep focusing on tragedy? Let’s get on with the business of living and learning Torah. Alternatively, I could jump into it and explore the gory details and share information. Or I could try (and probably fail) to give them an answer that will put to rest any theological problems or security fears. Alternatively, I could just listen.

A student wrote me an email after the shooting looking for answers. I respond as best I can, tailored to the needs of that student, but when I get to class on Monday and as I begin to teach, it becomes clear that the elephant is there, lying beneath the surface ready to roll over and crush any normal lesson plan.

What shall I tell them? I wonder about my young elementary school grandchildren. What, if anything, are their well-intentioned teachers telling them? And what would I say if we were in the room together? I’m hoping that I would begin by listening, much as I want to shout at them that there is so much evil in the world and they need to protect themselves, or rather I need to protect them and I’m not sure that I can. But, in the end, I know that my first step would be to hear what they are saying before I jump in to relieve my own turmoil.

A few years ago, a high school student said to me in class, “The world is a scary place.” Other students nodded in agreement. I’ve been around long enough to hear kids say lots of things about the world – the world is hypocritical, it’s selfish, it’s unfair. But for this past generation, 9-11 was a watershed even if they are too young to remember it. (They looked at me incredulously one day when I told them that I remember when you went to the airport, you just walked up to the gate without ever having to go through security.)

The world is a different place and I would leave it up to the mental health professionals to determine how to best talk with children about the preoccupation with security in our lives and about mass shootings that hit so close to home. But as religious parents and educators, we need to be prepared with our own responses, not only about how to protect our bodies but how to protect our souls as well.

Like all matters of the heart and mind, our reactions need to be tailored to the needs of our kids, not to our own needs for them. That’s why my first step is almost always to listen. What have you heard? What do you know? What do you think? How does it make you feel?

I do not want to impose my own sense of panic. Surely for younger children, one should probably not talk about this at all. They have plenty of time to catch up later in life. Our job is to protect their reality and not impose ours. For older elementary children, depending upon what one hears them say, then responses can be channeled to the positive. A horrible thing happened, but we have to thank Hashem for the fact that more people were not hurt, or that the police ultimately stopped the man. We continue to daven for the people who were hurt. As Jews we daven.

It’s only as they get older, especially as tweens or teens, when they will raise the question, “Yes, well about all of those people who were killed—weren’t they davening for God’s protection at the time? How could He let that happen? It’s not fair. It’s not right.”

There it is. The real elephant, the crushing question that has no simple answer. And so the discussion ensues. We talk about doubt and faith, about what is good doubt and what is bad doubt. We talk about an infant child’s relationship with her parents, totally trusting even when she feels that they have wronged her and so, too, that is my relationship with Hashem at times. At moments like this, one falls back on that relationship rather than using it as a moment to find faith. We talk about the role of man, crazy hate-filled men, versus the role of God in troubled times.

As the conversation goes on, I decide to let them in on my own struggles. For they need to hear that adults struggle too. I am reciting Tehillim daily for a grandchild who was badly injured. Among the chapters that I say is Chapter 22 which has as its opening line קלי קלי למה עזבתני – “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” I would be lying if I said that I do not question why the tragedy had to happen. What could You possibly have had in mind when You allowed this to take place? And then almost daily I recall Rav Soloveitchik pointing out that one can never know what God has in mind. Instead of asking lamah, why have You forsaken me, one should read the word l’mah, toward what end have You allowed this? What am I supposed to learn from this? How can I take this into my life and change myself or my perspective? What meaning can I derive?

That’s an important lesson for all of us, but especially for kids because in the wake of tragedy it is valuable to be able to actually do something. Attend a vigil, write a condolence letter to a family or the community, take some new mitzvah upon yourself or, as one of my colleagues suggested, this atrocity happened in a shul; perhaps we should take shul a little more seriously than we have or perhaps you can pay attention to one line of davening you usually take for granted.

As more voices venture forth, we cover other points. I feel obligated to tell them that if they did not realize it, anti-Semitism is alive and well. This is an experience of previous generations from which we have generally been shielded. See yourselves as living in a continuum even as we live in a country which is essentially safe and protective, the likes of which Diaspora Judaism have never known and so we have much to be thankful for. The very fact that this has been happening for generations, yet those Jews persevered, can itself be a lesson to us. One student reminds us that, whatever our ideological differences, we are all Jews, a single nation. As the Rav used to say, in the gas chambers they did not make distinctions about your brand of Judaism.

As the period goes on, I realize that as much as they want to listen to me, I find something incredibly moving and consoling about listening to them. In their heart of hearts, they too know that there are no definitive answers to the big questions. But there is value to being able to ask the questions aloud, to hearing that we are all in the same boat, as we have been since time immemorial, and that we just need to have faith that the Captain is in charge, ultimately looking out for our welfare and our safe passage.

May this be a true Shabbat shalom.


Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award. Send comments to soulofparenting@gmail.com

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.