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Dr. Steven Lorch is the head of school at Kadima Day School in West Hills, California. He received his Ph.D from Columbia University, and his Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshiva University. He also holds a masters in Education from Harvard University Graduate School of Education. 

Head of School as Mourner-in-Chief

Tragic events, whether personal, national, or global, evoke responses which psychologists refer to as stages of grief (after Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying). For heads of school, the ways in which we publicly give expression to these inner experiences can sometimes reassure, promote confidence, and help members of our communities cope more productively with the grief that they, too, are experiencing.


On October 7, it was easy for me to dismiss the news. There were rumors in synagogue of a terrorist attack in Israel with hundreds of casualties, but because the attack took place too late to be reported in the Saturday newspaper on my doorstep and I don’t use electronic devices on Shabbat, I couldn’t confirm or disconfirm the incoming reports. I was able to delude myself into believing that the scope of the tragedy was probably exaggerated. By Sunday morning, the headlines shook me out of denial.

My first public act: Detachment. Nonresponse. Though I would later feel horror and outrage, for now I was in limbo, unable to emote until the news was verified.


In the fog of the moment, my ire was aimed everywhere except where it belonged: Hamas. The initial target of my anger was the Israeli government and security establishment. Fifty years after the Yom Kippur War, they had let their guard—our guard—down again. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” I thought.

The object of my anger soon shifted, however. Once I got home from Simchat Torah services, my phone pinged all afternoon with messages from school colleagues. Didn’t they realize that I couldn’t reply? Didn’t they know that school policy prohibits engaging in school business, or communicating about it, on holidays? What life-and-death matter for the school community needed to be addressed right now that couldn’t be addressed five minutes after the holiday ended?!

My public act: Not to give voice to my anger. I addressed the issue of contact on Shabbat and holidays in a leadership team meeting, but not until a month later, long after I’d calmed down. By that time, I also had the presence of mind to make clear that I understood and appreciated their concern, though I hoped that similar concerns could be expressed differently in the future. Together, we restored consensus around the policy.


Throughout the afternoon of Simchat Torah, I negotiated with myself. Will we really need more security for as long as this crisis continues? Our finances are already stretched. But parents will feel reassured to see additional guards. But our security protection is already excellent, and our campus is a hardened target compared to other schools. But in the unlikely event that there were an incident and I’d done nothing…

My next public act: I called our security consultant in the evening, asked him what he recommended, added more security guards by the following morning per his recommendation, and sent an email blast to the community with an update.


Over the next few days, I felt vaguely out of sorts. Yes, we had upped our security. Yes, we had opened school on Monday with an assembly at which we publicly marked our heartache and solidarity. Yes, our teachers and counseling staff were active in supporting our students, parents, and each other. Yes, I was checking in with teachers and parents with close family in Israel. But I felt behind the curve, reactive, not at the top of my game.

This was disconcerting. I contrasted my malaise with how I had felt during Covid. I had known next to nothing about public health in early 2020, and I already knew quite a lot about coping with tragedies in schools. After all, I had sat with my son in a sealed room in Jerusalem in January 1991, sheltering from Scud missiles, and returned to Australia days later to lead my school through that crisis. The school I headed on September 11, 2001, was located five miles north of the Twin Towers. So why did I feel so much better prepared to deal with a pandemic than I did now?!

A brief comment by a colleague at a Prizmah Zoom meetup lifted me out of my doldrums. She said that she was feeling the way she had at the beginning of Covid. “The beginning of Covid!” I thought to myself. “Of course!” I had been comparing my response a few days into the war with my feeling of readiness a year or two into Covid. By that time, I had assembled my team of gurus consultants, and thought partners. Then, sure, I was at the top of my game. But thinking back to the early days of Covid, I was feeling my way in the dark and beating myself up for it, much as I was doing now.

My public act: I thanked my Prizmah colleague and shared with the others on the call the insight her remark had just jolted me into. I also shared my self-forgiveness with colleagues on a DSLTI call a few days later, and with my leadership team colleagues at my school. We all need to show ourselves some compassion.


I’m not ready for acceptance. We as a people aren’t ready for acceptance—not while hostages are still in captivity, the war rages on, and 1930s-style Jew-hatred stalks the land.

My public act, for now: Even though I may not yet have achieved an inner state of acceptance, I am still called upon to publicly manifest it: I comfort those who have lost loved ones. I support those more directly in harm’s way than I am. I am a compassionate presence for my community. I recite prayers for forgiveness and divine intervention. But I can’t really understand or come to terms with it, because… What is it, anyway?

This moment feels like aninut, the fleeting period between death and burial, which my teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, referred to as “a howl of grisly horror… a hideous darkness.” But it’s not exactly aninut, either. Rather, we are in an aninut doom loop, an unending dread. 

We don’t know what acceptance will look like because we don’t know what we will ultimately be called upon to accept. We stand before an open grave, but we don’t know whom or what we will eventually need to mourn. For those of us with loved ones on the front lines—in Tzahal, or on embattled college campuses—this fear, this anguish, is literal and visceral.

In the end, we will know with finality which dead we are burying. And then we will perform the most heroic public act of all: reciting Kaddish, the promise of salvation in the face of despair and revulsion. “Yitgadal ve-yitkadash shemeih rabba…