Oct. 27 and the children of Dor Hadash
OpinionGuest columnist

Oct. 27 and the children of Dor Hadash

Amidst the pain of remembering and commemorating, there was joy in being together in person for Friday night services.

Karen Morris
(File photo)
(File photo)

In the fall of 2019 I began my tenure as principal of Dor Hadash Religious School. Just a few weeks later, the school was faced with the upcoming first-year commemoration of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

The Oct. 27, 2018, attack, which touched everyone in Pittsburgh, directly impacted our congregation and students. Beyond the trauma of the attack itself, our students were faced with a sudden move to a new space. It was no secret to the children, some as young as 6, as to why the school relocated. While it might have been possible to shield the unthinkable from other young children in Pittsburgh, that wasn’t possible for the children of Dor Hadash.

Our religious school teachers addressed the attack as best they could, emphasizing to the children that they were safe in their new building, and everyone was doing everything to make sure that remained the case. Rodef Shalom Congregation embraced us and offered warm support and comfort. We found a new home.

For the first-year commemoration, our teacher Ami Weintraub and I created and led an optional schoolwide program to be held at the end of the school day during the week of commemoration events. Parents joined, and we brought in the support of a counselor from Jewish Family and Community Services. We focused on healing through song, reciting part of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and lighting a candle for each of the 11 victims. At the end of the ceremony, the students had an opportunity to express their feelings on a small rock, to write a word, to decorate it, to find some strength and healing in the solid nature of the stone itself.

We marked the second-year commemoration on Zoom, due to the pandemic. We held a brief memorial with some readings and lit a candle. We needed to mark the day, but it is so hard to embrace young children’s feelings in a virtual setting. We acknowledged the event is now part of this congregation, and a part of our children. While we don’t spend much time grappling with Oct. 27 throughout the school year, it is an element of our history now, and it is important to mark the day and create something positive so our children can find continued strength, support and meaning.

This year, school met on Oct. 27. The congregation had spent the previous Shabbat marking the Hebrew yahrzeit date of the 18th of Cheshvan with both a special Friday night service and Shabbat morning Torah study service. Amidst the pain of remembering and commemorating, there was joy in being together in person for Friday night services. Our Mitzvah class (seventh-graders) sang Psalm 90 using the melody of Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin. In English, the Psalm translates as “Teach us to treasure each day, that we may open our hearts to Your wisdom.” We learned that this Psalm and specific melody was one of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz’s favorites to sing during Shabbat morning services.

Our creative and thoughtful teaching staff planned what we wanted the afternoon of Oct. 27 to look like at school. We decided, with the support of the families, that the seventh-graders would attend the community commemoration at Schenley Park with their teacher, and the rest of the students would have a program at school.

One of our religious school teachers, Sharon Serbin, came up with an all-school art project to help not only commemorate those who died, but also to give our students hope and strength. Each class was given a 12-inch plastic planter plate, tacky glue, colored beads, glass gems, mirrored sparkling gems and a potted succulent. Each class was also assigned a theme: memorial, Jewish identity, strength or love. The students decorated their planter to fit their specific theme. The small potted succulent plant was placed in the middle of each plate. During the memorial ceremony, Sharon explained to the students and families, “There are times in our lives where we will feel scared, or threatened. As long as we embrace and honor these four elements, remember those who have gone before us, connect to our Jewish roots and Jewish peers, take strength in our community, and fill ourselves and the world with love, we will continue to grow and thrive, like this plant.”

We held our commemoration at the end of the school day and invited families. Our students placed their projects together, then surrounded them with the battery tea light candles they were holding. We concluded with singing Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Shebeirach” prayer for healing, followed by playing Rabbi Menachem Creditor’s “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“The world will be built with lovingkindness”). PJC

Karen Morris, a native Pittsburgher, is the principal of Dor Hadash Religious School. Prior to working at Dor Hadash she was principal at Torah Lishmah Community, the religious school of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation.

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