The way we teach our children makes a big impression, a lasting one. I don’t remember much about fire drills from elementary school; I remember being in the school plays. By contrast, I remember vividly a different drill in sixth grade: we were told that an air raid siren would go off and that we were to get under our desks with our hands over our heads. Why? I grew up in Houston, TX in the 1980’s. We were told that the Russians had nuclear warheads aimed at NASA which was, in Texas terms, just down the road (about a 45 minute drive). We were taught to be afraid.
This week, an arrest was made in the investigation into the recent bomb threats against Jewish institutions, AND my school, Albert Einstein Academy began performances of our spring play, “Disney Winnie the Pooh Kids!” Which do we want our students to remember? The answer should obviously be the play.
The arrest provides a bookend in one more volume of the encyclopedia of anti-Semitic attacks. In using the term “anti-Semitism,” it matters not who made the threats, only that the threats were made against Jewish institutions, using hateful language. In using the term “attacks,” it matters not that the threats were all hoaxes (thank God!), only that the threats produced mass evacuations. For now, it matters not why these attacks were made, only that the arrest means they may stop.
Let me be clear: what matters is about us. It was always about us. Were we prepared for a bomb threat from anyone? Yes. Were we secure enough in our relationship with law enforcement to trust them to provide protection, to help clear our building when threatened, and to investigate threats against us? Yes, and, frankly, in our specific instance local and regional law enforcement were actively here for us working, advising, and strategizing with us, and empowering national and international authorities in a way that lead to the arrest. Were we surrounded by neighbors and community leaders who showed love and support for us? Most emphatically, yes!
Did we also go through an emotional rollercoaster ride? Yes. Hold onto that for a moment. This period was difficult for us. It pulled us away from routine and from our goals, like the spring play. The number and sophistication of the threats raised the specter of Jews being unwelcome in countries they have come to call home. After the first threat, I wrote elsewhere that I was not afraid and believe Judaism teaches us not to be afraid. Resilience, defiance, anger, in addition to fear are no easier to handle. We went through a very tough time; we should not forget that.
Our long-term memory, though, needs to be different than our short-term memory. We quickly forget the many smaller, isolated acts of anti-Semitism every year. Our long-term memory reminds us to be vigilant; that is where our plans in case of a threat originated. Our long-term memory also needs to be positive.
We never taught our students about hatred. We never taught our students about insecurity. We taught them about uncertainty and about community. We taught them about living and love.
We also rehearsed, reworked, and refined an amazing play. The play is about friendship, it is about the unique value of everyone, and it is about promises of security (like Noah’s rainbow). In the long-term, I am confident that our students will far more remember what they learned by doing the play; lessons about courage, poise, confidence, and the thrill of success. We taught strengths, strengths that will endure.
This week, Jews finish reading the Book of Exodus, Shemot. Each time we finish a book of the Torah, we sing the words “chazak chazak v’nitchazek” (be strong, be strong, and you will be strengthened). As we emerge from a challenging winter, let us go from strength to strength. By focusing on enduring strengths, we will be strengthened.