Protecting children from trauma during the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial
With trial expected to last all summer, educators and mental health experts promote community and connectedness
Lisa Naveh’s second grade students clutched their drawings. Tightly gripped between tiny fingers, each picture contained a written plea. The first illustration wished its recipient more flowers than weeds. The second sketch wished its recipient more candy than broccoli. The third, more wins than losses.
Naveh collected the crayon drawings and showed them to Community Day School colleagues. The educators strategized. One teacher encouraged her students to create similar works and bind the images before presenting them collectively. Another teacher, who also joined the project, proposed rolling each item and gifting it individually.
The 250 drawings were headed to a “healing room” at the federal courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. Floors away from where the trial against the accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter is occurring, the room, Naveh said, is “where family members can go to take a break, have quiet and calm, and recharge.”
Naveh’s project is a response to the massacre that occurred 4½ years ago.
After a gunman entered the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018 and killed 11 worshippers, a deluge of food, books, artwork and notes — all things intended to “brighten our lives” — arrived at Community Day School’s doorstep. Pittsburghers and others worldwide “supported our school, students, teachers and faculty then,” Naveh said. “It made me think, ‘What could we do in the same nature?’”
The answer involved Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld’s “I Wish You More,” a New York Times bestselling children’s book with depictions of children running and pulling kites alongside numerous good wishes, including, “I wish you more ups than downs” and “I wish you more we than me.”
Naveh read the text with her students and conveyed the importance of “being a mensch and spreading light and love.”
She distributed blank papers with prompts asking students to wish others “more” of anything. Her students scrawled hopes beside colorful renderings of flowers, ice cream, bandages and pandas. Naveh, an educator with 20 years of experience, praised the children for creating such meaningful gifts but never once mentioned the healing room, federal death penalty case or Oct. 27, 2018.
Her desire to create an intentional project without revealing its recipients or origins reflects a predicament many local educators face: As the trial concerning the largest antisemitic attack in U.S. history heads into week three of what could be a four-month process, how can children be protected from trauma when trauma — and its effects — are foremost in the minds of parents, community members and the teachers themselves?
“One of the things that we do at Environmental Charter School is make sure that our students, families and whole community feel really supported,” Superintendent Amanda Cribbs said. “We make sure that we’re not just educating minds but taking care of the whole child.”
In recent years, educators, school leaders and mental health experts have realized that taking care of the “whole child” requires more than quantitative academic instruction.
Environmental Charter School CEO Jon McCann said there is a “generalized set of skills that all young people are going to need going forward.”
Those qualities include being aware of one’s feelings, knowing who to talk to and “finding someone to process this with,” he said.
Without those traits, children can face devastating prospects.
In an advisory released last week, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said social isolation and loneliness in childhood “increase the risk of depression and anxiety both immediately and well into the future.”
Loneliness is “an epidemic health crisis,” declared Murthy before encouraging the country to take greater steps to address mental health.
Within the U.S., nearly one in five people ages 3 to 17 have a “mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder,” according to the 2022 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report.
The congressionally mandated annual report found that “suicidal behaviors among high school students increased more than 40% in the decade before 2019,” and that even prior to the pandemic, mental health challenges were already the “leading cause of death and disability in this age group.”
A February panel at the Friendship Circle in Pittsburgh personalized the data. Four local teens described the challenges of adolescence and why it’s vital to listen, be supportive and promote mental health offerings within the community.
Recent years have proved challenging for local children and families. There was the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, COVID-19 and the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge. Especially now, with the start of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial, adults can play a vital role, Cribbs explained.
“We all take part in making sure that our students feel supported and can deal with their big feelings,” she said. It’s important that students “feel in the end that someone cares about them deeply and that they can grow into someone who cares about other people.”
One challenge, however, is that parents and educators are also experiencing strain.
With news of the trial reported daily, it’s important to remember “teachers are in some way coping with the trauma children have,” said Bradley Davis, a nationally certified and licensed school psychologist and Community Day School staffer.
Apart from the pressure many adults are facing, there’s another wrinkle, Davis continued.
After 4½ years, jury selection just began. School lets out in five weeks. The bulk of the trial is expected to occur this summer — a period when students and teachers have “less of an immediate connection,” he said.
Davis said CDS will “stay in contact with families” and share resources available in the community.
Environmental Charter School — located 2 miles from the site of the 2018 shooting and home to students and families intimately tied to the trial — is adopting a similar approach while remaining cognizant of the months ahead.
“It’s an absolute concern, but fortunately we have a pretty good 12-month crew that stays in touch,” McCann said.
The summer will be challenging, Davis noted, but Pittsburghers can benefit from vast community mental health resources.
UpStreet Pittsburgh, the 10.27 Healing Partnership and JFCS Pittsburgh each provide programs, services and counseling.
A recent outdoor activity modeled a future summer offering.
On April 25 — one day after the trial began — children, parents and other adults met at the Sheridan Avenue Orchard in East Liberty. Representatives of Repair the World Pittsburgh and the 10.27 Healing Partnership led a service-learning project focused on sustaining individuals, communities and the Earth through challenging periods.
For younger students especially, it’s been helpful having spaces where people “feel like you’re in community,” the Healing Partnership’s outreach coordinator Emery Malachowski said. Whether it’s community gardening, or another activity where children and adults can work together, there are opportune environments to talk, “feel safe and emotionally held.”
Maggie Feinstein, the Healing Partnership’s director, said that when it comes to discussing the trial, parents should follow their children’s lead but also keep a critical consideration in mind: “The extra added layer in all of this is remembering that a lot of our young kids are not re-experiencing trauma, they are experiencing it for the first time.”
A high school student, though, “was in middle school when it happened and that student has developed a new persona, identity, and way to process the world around her,” Feinstein added. “They understood it in a different lens then, and they are different people now.”
Naveh said she has no intention of telling her second graders where their drawings are headed. She knows that middle schoolers were “made aware of what we are doing, why and where it is going,” but when it comes to younger students “you have to be respectful,” she said. “At these younger ages, we don’t know what has been shared at home and how it is talked about or processed.”
With just over a month of the school year remaining, Naveh said she will continue leaning on colleagues, family and friends as the trial continues.
She hopes others follow a similar path.
“Whether you are a parent, student or someone who is learning about what it means to work together with people in our community or other communities, it’s important to focus on that each and every day,” she said. “All of us who are affected by this are resilient. We are working together and bringing love and light into the community.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.