Hylton I Lightman MD DCH(SA) FAAP

Our world changed this past Shabbos.  Permanently.  And not for the better.  We heard the news of the massacre in the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh.  Actually, forget calling it a massacre and let’s call it what it really was — a pogrom, because it was planned with malice aforethought against Jews.  And for no reason other than to kill Jews.

Jewish history is replete with massacres and pogroms perpetrated against Jews.  Think of the destruction of our Temples in Jerusalem several millennia ago.  Bogdan Khmelnitsky in 17th century Eastern Europe.  Churban Europa.  The Chabad House in Mumbai, India, nearly ten years ago.  The almost daily attacks emanating from Gaza into Israel.

But we Americans never thought it would happen on these shores, on this continent, in the 21st century.

This latest pogrom begs responses on many levels.

Hate is not an option and is to be avoided at all costs.  It is ugly and never brings anything good into this world.  The church massacre in Charleston in 2015.  Or the 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando.  Hating people who are different from us is not Torah behavior.  It’s not Judaism.  Period.  There are differences among people and differences are not reasons to hate and destroy.  This reminds us AGAIN that words matter and often they result in behaviors that are unimaginable.

Despite the tornado of mudslinging and hatred due to differences of color, religion, political preferences, etc., it’s important to remember that each person born into this world is an entire universe onto himself, pregnant with potential to bring forth life and propel this universe to new heights.  This mindset will help us navigate life’s challenging vicissitudes and differences.

We are told to be a “Light onto the nations.”  The prophet Isaiah says this phrase no less than three times.  The selection of the Menorah as the symbol of the State of Israel derives directly from this phrase.  In his 2017 speech to the United Nations, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the “State of Israel is a light unto the nations, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.”

Clearly, we are not meant only to stay in our own homes.  Rather, we have an important role in setting forth the moral compass of this world and in answering tragedies like the Pittsburgh pogrom that claimed 11 beautiful lives.  As Albert Einstein said, “The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it without doing anything.”

We must each engage in a Din V’Cheshbon (yes, it’s only six weeks after Yom Kippur), to ascertain what we can each do to bring G-d’s light into this world.  Refining our language is a one place to start.  Notice how often we might say “I hate…” or “I’d die if…”  Or that we charge ahead with judging and criticizing others without possessing all facts.  A review of the laws of Loshon HaRa will stand us in good stead.

Think about our behavior in public.  The illegal u-turns on our streets.  Waiting to be seen in a doctor’s office.  How we speak to the garbage men.  We all have places to go, people to see, things to get done.  By refining our behavior, maybe then our children will automatically stand for their Rebbes, Morahs and teachers and grow into caring adults who see each individual as pregnant with potential.

Similarly, we should not take our loved ones for granted.  Send your children out the door every day with “I love you.”  Does it matter in the long term if your spouse left toothpaste in the wash basin?  Think about how you can create a more loving home.

On a somewhat different note, our world has changed because the Pittsburgh pogrom has brought into 20/20 focus a concern – no, actually a fear, that whether we are in school or shul, are we sitting ducks?  G-d forbid, could the Parkland or Sandy Hook shootings or the Pittsburgh pogrom happen to us?  My 15 year old daughter has expressed this in other words.  I’m not the only father (or grandfather) in this world who wants safety for his family.  But how humble I feel to make this reality.

The unfortunate reality is it’s well within the realm of reality that it could happen.  We must invest effort in securing our schools, shuls, shopping stores and communities.

I have read the statements of several shuls, schools and organizations about Pittsburgh.  I am proud of The White Shul and Mesivta Ateres Yaakov for announcing they will be reassessing their security measures and proceeding accordingly.

Which organization is going to take the lead in the Five Towns/Far Rockaway community in bringing all schools and shuls together to address this issue on a communal level?  Yes, each school, shul, or institution has its specific needs.  However, it would be a tremendous statement and Kiddush HaShem if we set aside our differences and self-aggrandizing platforms to assure the safety of this community.

Further, although we adults are struggling with our own thoughts and feelings about this horrific tragedy, it does not absolve us from the responsibility of talking to children about what they are seeing and hearing, even when they did not directly witness the event.

Honesty is important but that doesn’t mean children need to know the details.  The child’s “developmental lens” should determine what he needs to know and how we speak with him.  Answering a child’s questions depends on what he can understand without further alarming him.

First, find out what your child already knows.  Gently ask questions and listen to their responses.  This is an opportune time to correct misinformation.  Acknowledge your child’s feelings; this should be the focal point rather than the event itself.  Searching for the right words to use?  Check out the website AFNATAL to find conversation starters for you and your children.

Let’s break it down by children by children’s ages.  Starting with very young children.

  • Infants and toddlers

Babies are comforted when caregivers are warm and responsive to their needs.  Highly predictable routines are crucial.

Because young children are sensitive to adults’ emotions, make every effort to speak in a calm voice.  Language should be simple.  Answer questions honestly but with minimal detail so their imaginations do not run wild.   This age group does best when reassured they are safe.  Perhaps some extra attention from Mommy, Daddy or a loving adult might be needed.

  • School Age Children

As your child is engaging with other children in school he or she may understand more and, as a result, may need to speak more.  That’s okay.  Please still exercise caution in sharing details.  Listen carefully to what they say and ask and respond accordingly.

  • Adolescents and Teens 

Teens need adults to listen to their thoughts and feelings without the adults editing them.  Some teenagers are already grappling with life and death issues or whether or not this is a world of justice.  They want honesty, not double talk.  However, teenagers do it on their timetable, meaning, it’s when they’re ready to talk.  And the adult must be available.  (hug your teen)

Our world is plagued by “TMI” – too much information.  It’s hard to regulate what our children are exposed to, especially when they have friends and walk the streets.  This is not an excuse for us to cop out.  Rather, use this as an opportunity to invite your children to ask questions and to bring you information to discuss.  Of course, never give up setting boundaries and monitoring your children on any electronic device.  Kids know far more than we realize (or want to admit).

  • Importance of Self Care

Physical exercise should be a part of every child’s development .  Exercise keeps you and your children movingI’m serious.  It keeps everyone busy and less “self” and “cell” focused.  It’s bonding time.  And you already know the benefits to setting loose those endorphins.

Mommy and Daddy this means you too!  Our world is a stressful one.  Make sure you schedule time to exercise, maintain a balanced diet and of course sleep.  Socializing with peers is important.  Remember the oxygen mask analogy, you have to put the mask on yourself first so you can help your children and others you love.

If you or any family member or loved one are struggling, don’t be a martyr.  Seek professional help.  There are mental health professionals, Rabbonim, Askanim and others who can help you – or at least help you to get the right help.  Healthy parents mean healthy children.

When I look back over the articles and blogs I have written in the past few years, far too many are about how to help our children cope with tragic events.  Together, let’s move forward with our children’s mental and emotional health intact.  

As always, daven.


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