In the days after a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, social studies teacher Amy Rose posed a new question on the “graffiti board” in her classroom at Paint Branch High School in Maryland.
“How can you fight hate?” she wrote in the wake of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the nation’s history.
Answers went up faster than she’d ever seen.
“You can’t, it’ll just come back #Humans.”
“Listen to both sides.”
The answers revealed a glimpse of what schools — religious and secular — have experienced as the nation reels over last weekend’s massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Eleven people were killed during Shabbat services. The alleged gunman, Robert Bowers, reportedly shouted, “All Jews must die.”
The incident left a nation mourning as it also cast light on the country’s increasingly divisive political discourse.
Schools opened Monday as many students, families and teachers struggled to comprehend the act of hate. Among the victims: a 97-year-old woman, a doctor and a dentist, and a beloved pair of brothers.
Counselors at many schools opened their doors to students who were struggling, and some teachers explored the issue in class, hoping to help their students process the tragedy. Religious schools of varying faiths turned to prayer.
It was deeply felt at the nation’s Jewish day schools, where leaders addressed the events in Pittsburgh with prayer, community conversations, readings of victim names and vows of kindness.
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., contacted families before the school week even began, offering comfort and reassurance.
Police had long been assigned to the school’s two campuses. Now, there would be stepped-up police presence, he said, as the school also focused on ways to support its shaken students and faculty.
“We share the grief of the Pittsburgh Jewish community and know that many members of our local community have personal ties to that community,” he said.
Over the weekend, Jewish school leaders across the country connected by email to trade ideas about what to say and whether to talk about the shooting with young children.
At Atlanta’s Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, during a discussion Monday with middle- schoolers, Rabbi Micah Lapidus recalled asking what they could do today in response to Pittsburgh. He said the faculty was hoping for responses such as being kind to one another, doing good deeds and counting their blessings. But after a moment of silence, he said, an eighth-grade boy raised his hand and said, “Exactly what we’re doing right now.”
In Houston, at the Robert M. Beren Academy, Head of School Paul Oberman said his message was one of solidarity. “An attack on one Jew is an attack on all Jews,” he said. He said students were asked to take on one new mitzvah, or commandment, to deepen their relationship with God.
In a letter to parents over the weekend, Oberman and other leaders offered a variety of resources for discussing mass shootings with children.
The rabbis also drew from Jewish learning. In San Francisco, Howard Jacoby Ruben spoke of this week’s Torah portion in talking with his students at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. In it, the biblical patriarch Abraham refers to himself as both “the rooted resident and an alien stranger,” Ruben said.
“The rabbis puzzle over how one can be both,” Ruben said. “Saturday’s horrible event highlighted how we can be both — to be rooted and feel like strangers at the same time.”
At Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax County, middle school students gathered in the beit midrash, or house of study, to light a memorial candle Monday morning, said Head of School Dan Finkel. In the space normally reserved for prayer and song, school employees told students they were safe at school and reassured them that feelings of worry, anxiety and sadness were normal.
Some students posed detailed questions, including whether the people killed would receive a Jewish funeral if law enforcement ordered autopsies, Finkel said, adding that students have begun composing support messages for the Squirrel Hill community.
“The truth is, after that conversation, we tried to get back to as regular routine as possible,” Finkel said. “As a Jewish institution, it hits close to home no matter if you know someone or not.”
A bomb threat at Gesher in 2017 prompted an evacuation and a police sweep of the building for explosives. That threat surfaced as dozens of Jewish community centers, schools, synagogues and cemeteries were targets of hate messages and discriminatory acts.
The fallout from the Pittsburgh attack went beyond Jewish schools.
At Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls Catholic school in Bethesda, Md., the week began at a daily assembly with prayers for the Pittsburgh victims. On Tuesday, the school did a presentation with the photo, name and age of each victim.
The school plans to light candles — near a prominent painting of the Holy Mother — and keep them flickering for 11 days, in memory of the 11 who died.
The school’s teachers found different ways to incorporate the topic into classroom discussions.
Christopher Murray, a world history teacher, invited conversation on the tragedy Monday as students processed what happened, then melded it into a Tuesday lesson he had planned about the end of the French Revolution. “We had a great dialogue,” he said.
Lauren Brownlee, who teaches an elective course focused on genocide, said her students said they were glad to have already studied anti-Semitism so that they could think about Pittsburgh in a historical context.
“What stood out to me is that they felt called to share that information with other students,” she said.
At Charles E. Smith in Rockville, with 920 students in pre-K to grade 12, older students prayed Monday from the Book of Psalms, as is customary when tragedies occur, and gathered for an assembly.
The high school’s principal, Marc Lindner, acknowledged the tragedy in Pittsburgh, the importance of supporting one another and the school’s increased security measures. He named the victims at Tree of Life one by one.
“The entire memorial assembly was silent,” said Aileen Goldstein, academic dean. “It was incredibly powerful.”
Two students read a Psalm aloud, in Hebrew and English. A rabbi led the assembly in the Hebrew prayer for mourners, the kaddish.
Lindner said he emphasized there were no wrong reactions to what had happened.
“We may want to scream, we may want to cry, we may want to laugh, we may have questions, we may be confused — and we may not want to think about this at all right now,” he recalled saying. “All of those possibilities are perfectly valid and natural.”
Later Monday, the school held a forum for high school students to brainstorm actions they could take in the aftermath of the assault. They will write letters and make other efforts to support the Pittsburgh community, Lindner said.
At Paint Branch High in Burtonsville, Rose, a teacher with classes in world history and comparative religions, opened up a discussion Tuesday in the religion course.
Two students moderated, and the conversation began with questions about why people hate certain groups and where those feelings come from, then delved into hateful social media posts and debated censoring hate speech on the Web.
Rose said she wanted students to be able to air their thoughts and work through what happened.
“I’m still doing the same thing,” she said. “It’s tough for adults, and I would think it’s more difficult for them.”