Preserving Community and Upholding Values: A School’s Response to Parkland

Amy Ament, Rabbi Joshua Lookstein

Like many other Jewish schools, ours sometimes finds itself challenged by the conflict between the competing imperatives. On the one hand, we never want a family to have to consider our school’s perceived political positions when deciding whether or not to enroll their children. Nor would we want students to feel uncomfortable by the school imposing a particular view or activity on them that goes against their own values and beliefs. Those are considered red lines, yehareg ve‘al ya‘avor (let oneself be killed rather than violate) at our school. On the other hand, it is important for us to be able to take a stand on certain significant issues for our community and country. Because politics is in the eye of the beholder, it becomes even more challenging to address critical, current, national issues in ways that are inclusive, social-emotionally safe, developmentally appropriate and apolitical.

We have found we have to tread lightly in our approach to politically sensitive topics, and whatever decision we make will likely not satisfy everyone. Recently, we received criticism from both parents and staff for sending a busload of students to Albany to lobby for security and STEM funding for day schools, and for not thanking our current president by name for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (we just did it again).

So when much of the country mobilized around the Parkland shootings, we had to decide if we would participate in the national response and, if so, how. We felt strongly that this was a historic event that our middle school students should be aware of and reflect upon. We also thought it was an important and potentially transformative learning experience. We want our students to be actively engaged in the world around them, and to feel empowered to impact the world. After all, our goal is for them to learn “al menat la’asot,” in order to act.

In deference to the diverse political views of our parent and student population, we wondered about how to commemorate this event without forcing students to participate in something they felt uncomfortable with. In one of our ears were parents and staff who felt that the 17-minute walkout was anti-Trump and anti-Second Amendment. In the other ear were parents and staff who felt that since the only rational and moral response was the 17-minute walkout, not walking out was pro-Trump and pro-Second Amendment.

We chose to look at the issue through the following overarching lens. When God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, God first engages in a discussion with Avraham, prefaced by the question, Hamechaseh ani mi’Avraham asher ani oseh, Will I conceal from Avraham that which I am doing? God knew what God wanted to do. But God also knew that if Avraham was to become av hamon goyim, the patriarch of multiple faith communities, God needed to expose him to difficult leadership decisions, to show him that the world was not black and white but rather multiple shades of gray, and that he and his descendants would constantly be faced with ethical dilemmas and questions with no clear answers.

Likewise, our administration struggled with the question of how to respond to Parkland. We could either avoid the question and let others grapple, make the decision for our students without giving them a chance to grapple, or we could invite our students into the grapple. We chose to invite them in.

We framed the day as a yom iyyun, a day of intense learning. The middle school gathered together as a community to learn from their teachers and from each other. In small groups, students were sent to classrooms for four mini-lessons on various topics. One teacher offered a brief history of student-led protests and the impact they have on the national conversation. Another teacher taught about the Second Amendment. A rabbi spoke about the laws of putting your life in danger to save another person. Another teacher spoke about the laws of visiting a mourner. Our school psychologist led a session on resilience. Another teacher discussed her own personal experiences with student activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry. A rabbi addressed to what extent our pop culture desensitizes us to violence.

At precisely 10am, at the moment of the designated walkout, students had two options: they could walk out or stay in. The same three 17-minute activities would be available outside and inside. Students could say tehillim, they could express their feelings artistically, or they could write letters to first responders or victims’ families. One key element was that students were asked to indicate their choice in advance. We wanted to prevent the possibility that students would simply go with their friends and account for critiques that students were influenced by teachers during their sessions. Most students chose to go outside. Some stayed inside. The administrators involved split up.

We take pride in the fact that we designed a program that helped students mourn the loss of life, learn lessons related to both the shootings and the student-led national response, experience the national debate about that response, and did it in as apolitical a way as possible. We received criticism. We knew we would. We explained our motivation. Some accepted our explanation and others didn’t. We felt we made the right decision. We didn’t imagine our program would satisfy all parties, but it satisfied many and still enabled us to be educationally responsible in our own eyes.

This model of coming together as a community to learn and share during difficult times helped us accomplish our goals in this situation. The formula—mini-sessions on topics related to the issue at hand, 2-3 response options, and similar ways of self-expression for each response—is replicable and adaptable to many situations. In hindsight, we could have done something similar to address the embassy’s move to Jerusalem. With enough practice, students may be able to design these programs on their own, rather than passively experiencing their teachers’ plans. We believe this structure will help students approach the inevitable future issues they will face proactively, thoughtfully and respectfully.

Our students are future Avrahams and Sarahs. God understood that even if we have a pretty good idea of what the right answer is and we are pretty sure our students will push back on it, it is important to invite them in to our thinking and contribute their own thoughts. That is how they will learn to live lives of impact.

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HaYidion In These Times Winter 2019
In These Times
Winter 2019