08 Sep Prayers For The New Year: Helping children to confront events that make us feel unsafe

Welcome to the 22nd volume of Daf Kesher. In my weekly column, I plan to share my view of Schechter Manhattan and thoughts on broader Jewish educational issues. I hope that my writing will offer insights into what makes Schechter Manhattan such a special place to learn and grow.

The amazing sound of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade students singing together brightened the start of my Thursday morning.  We had gathered for tfilah, as we will throughout the school year. In addition to our regular weekday prayers, we sang a portion of Psalm 27, traditionally recited during the month of Elul, leading up to the high holiday period.   The psalmist expressed worry about dangers present in the world and offered this prayer…

אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת- ה’ אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-ה’ כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי

One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek: To live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

The implication is that dwelling in God’s house will afford us God’s protection from harm.  This is a time of year when we acknowledge our frailty- that dangerous things do and could happen.  And it is a time of year when we hope and pray for God’s protection.  The melody we sang for these words is upbeat (maybe you recognize the repeating “shivti, shivti, shivti, woo!”) and brings with it an optimistic tone.  The sound of the students singing joyously at Schechter Manhattan this week served as an affirmation of the potential for good things- safety, health, life, and love- in the year ahead.


As I sang along, I also could not help but think about the thousands of school children who were not in school this week as they recover from the devastating hurricane damage in east Texas.   The images and reports of destruction and tragedy in the Houston area are terrifying, and in many ways, there was little the people living there could do to protect themselves.  Even more than our high holiday liturgy, real events remind us that so much is out of our control.


Facing our fragility and mortality is challenging for adults and can be even harder for children.  There are a number of ways we can help students when they confront events that make us feel unsafe.  First, we can structure opportunities for them to think about what the events mean to them.  We all react and feel differently to specific events, like the hurricane, or the big idea of mortality.  There is no one right way to think or feel, nor is there one way to make meaning of it.  Some students will be curious about the science of the hurricane and thinking about ways to better prepare for future weather events.  Other students will need to explore theological questions of God’s goodness and place in such tragedy.  And others will want to turn to ways that we can help and support people suffering from tragedy.


At Schechter Manhattan, teachers throughout the school spent time last week preparing developmentally appropriate lessons about the hurricane.  For example, second grade students will reflect on working together in a team-building activity in PE class, to consider what it feels like to depend on each other and how groups of people worked together to help each other in the hurricane.  Fifth grade students will choose different aspects of the hurricane to explore, including its causes, the impact on cities and people, and local and global responses, and then offer their recommendations to the class of what they think we should do to respond to the tragedy.  While 5 year olds and 12 year olds will surely engage with these ideas in different ways, the lessons teachers planned are all learning activities in which students are encouraged to explore their own thoughts and responses.


Second, we can be ready to talk with children about sad events.  I expect that, like me, many Schechter Manhattan parents have spent time over the past weeks talking with their children about the hurricane and its aftermath. Offering our children a calm and caring space to ask questions and talk about how they feel can help them build coping skills that will serve them well in the future.  Click here for suggestions of ways to talk with your children about scary news.


Lastly, Jewish tradition teaches us that we can and should take action to repair the world. In another part of the high holiday liturgy, the climactic unetane tokef recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we recite that in the face of a year filled with both life and death, we should engage with תשובה, תפילה, וצדקה- repentance, prayer, and charity.  We are called upon to self-reflect and ask ourselves what we have done and what we can do better.  We are charged to give to others.  I believe that Jewish tradition empowers us by insisting that even in the face of hurricanes, each of us has the power and responsibility to make a difference.  When we send that message to our children, by encouraging them to translate their ideas into meaningful action, we offer them a powerful response to tragedy.  We can model this message by giving tzedakah to support the hurricane relief efforts.  Click here to donate to the UJA Federation Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.


As we start the school year, with its predictable rhythms and routines, we hope and expect that our students will feel safe and be ready to tackle the many academic challenges to come in the weeks and months ahead.  At the same time, as we look towards the new Jewish year, we recognize that at any moment the routines of our lives could be upended by things that are out of our control.  I pray that this year we will all be protected from harm, as if we dwell in the house of the Lord.  And should some of us face tragedy, that we will be inspired to acts of love that will support and sustain our community.


I wish you a sweet new year.

Shabbat Shalom

Benjamin Mann

Author’s Chair

Each week we will feature the written work of our students. We hope that you will stop back next week and see what they are writing and thinking about.