The conversation I have been avoiding having with my 7-year-old begins naturally enough. I have been procrastinating for weeks, although, in fairness, I spent one week just figuring out what to say.
“Do we tell her to run out of the building?” I had asked my husband, as I pictured our daughter alone on our synagogue’s busy urban street. Under different circumstances, it would be years before we’d let her navigate the neighborhood by herself. “She’s safer outside the building than in, if she can get out,” I had pointed out. Like most second-graders, she’d had what she called “robber drills” at school, as well as fire and tornado drills. But there was always a teacher in charge. In synagogue, she had more freedom.
We could be asking a 7-year-old to gauge whether she could escape. And where would we tell her to go if she could? The fire station across a major avenue? The shopping center across a five-way intersection? Would a child running from danger, barely tall enough to be seen above a dashboard, remember to look both ways before crossing the street?
“Unless she’s right near an exit, she should lock herself in a room and hide,” replied my husband, who had attended his share of active-shooter drills. “In a closet, if possible.”
“A closet? You’re supposed to get far away from the door. Couldn’t someone just shoot open the lock?”
“Shooters are there to kill as many people as possible. They know the police are coming. They know they have limited time. They don’t waste it breaking into locked closets.”
That sounded too rational.
“The police will be there in a matter of minutes. Then it becomes a fight between them and the shooter. Shooters know this. They know they have only so much time to kill as many people as possible.”
The strategic calculation was chilling.
“She has to stay alive until the police arrive. She should hide.”
I weighed the options and eventually agreed. At least now I knew what to say.
Our daughter considers our synagogue her second home, more so even than school, the other former safe haven. On a typical Saturday morning, she comes to the adult service for fifteen minutes, watches the Torah procession, then runs off with her friends to snack and play until the children’s service begins. Afterward, they play for another hour or so. She could be anywhere in the building, engaged in a game of tag or hide and seek. It’s a beautiful way to build community. And in this age of helicopter parenting, in which I admit participating, our synagogue is one of the few places she can run free. I don’t always know where she is in the building. But I have always known she was safe. Until now.
I will not take my daughter’s freedom away and insist she remain with an adult at all times. That would change the whole nature of our Saturday mornings. Perhaps she would be safer, but there would be a loss and maybe resistance to coming to synagogue at all. So I choose a different loss for her. I choose to lessen her innocence. And like every Jewish parent I know after Pittsburgh and Poway, I wonder how much my words will scare her and whether it’s better to say nothing at all.
For weeks I say nothing, postponing the talk I know we must have. Then one Saturday, as the two of us drive to synagogue, there is a lull in our conversation. This is my moment.
“You know,” I begin, “if you’re ever in synagogue and someone comes in to hurt people, or if you hear scary noises or see people running or screaming-–“
She cuts me off with that eye-rolling tone which younger siblings adopt far too early. She has heard me warn her brother and sister never to go off with a stranger. “I know, I know, you kick and fight and yell and make a lot of noise so people see you.”
“NO,” I say emphatically, trying to hide my alarm as I imagine her running toward a shooter. “That’s the wrong situation. That’s what you do if you’re outside and someone is trying to take you. If you’re inside and there’s someone with a gun in the building, you get away. If you’re near a door to the outside, go outside. Don’t wait for a grown-up. Run.” I pause while she takes it in. “If you’re not near an outside door, you hide. Find the closest room, lock the door, and don’t come out.”
“Like a bathroom stall?”
“No, because someone can open a stall. Like the door to the whole bathroom. There’s a lock on the door to the bathroom that you can reach. You close the door and lock it. I’ll show you later. You can try it.”
“I know,” she says with a smile in her voice so big I can hear it from the front seat. “If it’s a boy robber, I can hide in the girls’ bathroom because he can’t go in there.” So much for being scared.
I laugh. “A boy robber can still go into the girls’ room, Silly. “
We discuss other places to hide, classrooms, offices. “Try to find a room without a window in the door. But if the only place you can find has a window, go there. Lock the door, pull down the window shade and go to the other side of the room, away from the door. Don’t come out, even when you think it’s okay. Stay there until a grown-up you know comes to get you. Someone you know will come get you.”
She listens attentively, then scoffs. “This isn’t real.”
“I know,” I lie. “It’s never going to happen. But you should know what to do anyway.”
She agrees. Mission accomplished. Momentarily. Suddenly it occurs to me that there are emergencies in which you don’t want your child locked in a random closet. Many of them.
“If there’s a fire —”
Again the eye-rolling tone. “I know. You run out of the building. You don’t take your toys or stuffed animals or guinea pigs.”
“That’s right. And if there’s a bomb, you do the same thing. You get out. You only hide if there’s a shooter.”
“Okay.” Pause. “What does a bomb sound like?”
“Like a big explosion.”
“How do you tell the difference between a bomb and a shooter?”
Good question. Not one I have considered or have any idea how to answer. I improvise. “A bomb is one really loud explosion. A shooter is a lot of smaller bangs, like a firecracker.”
“What does a firecracker sound like, Fourth of July?”
“Like —” I grasp for an answer. “Like a series of bangs. A bomb is one giant bang. A shooter is smaller bangs but more of them … like bang, bang, bang, bang.” I cringe as I hear my words. This can’t possibly be the right thing to say. But she accepts my explanation and seems to understand.
“Okay,” she says. “Why are we talking about this now anyway?”
“No reason,” I answer. “We just had some free time in the car.”
Alexandra Kauffman Horowitz is a writer and filmmaker. She can be reached at Alexandra.email@example.com.