Dressed in white tops as a symbol of hope and resilience, the 360 students at Bryn Mawr's Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy entered their school on Monday passing 11 flickering Yahrzeit candles memorializing Pittsburgh's dead, and then gathered to talk about finding strength in the face of an attack on their people.
"Our ability to defy the darkness is what allows us to persevere," Molly Lavoe, the student body president, told her classmates, who sat around Barrack's main dining hall, some with heads bowed. "Hope will bring us together. Hope does not guarantee happy endings; it teaches us, when things feel like they could not get any worse, we continue to hang on and keep on fighting."
That kind of solemn scene was repeated at Jewish schools and academies across the Philadelphia region, as teens, younger children, and their teachers struggled together to find meaning and comfort just 48 hours after the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history took place in Pennsylvania.
Children sang "Acheinu," a traditional song of solidarity, recited psalms, or wrote prayers to the dead and their survivors that in the near future will be placed in cracks in Jerusalem's Western Wall. Teachers patiently tried to answer children's questions about who was killed inside the Tree of Life synagogue and why, or tried to turn tragedy into a teaching moment about the healing power of faith and a tight-knit community.
Sharon Levin, head of school at Barrack, noted that a number of juniors, studying abroad in Israel this semester, had just completed a week-long excursion to Poland that included a visit to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.
"Yesterday we're preparing this [assembly, and] we're receiving pictures of 11th graders who were literally at Auschwitz," said Levin, citing their photos of the train tracks that took Jews to their death in the Holocaust. She added: "As Jews and non-Jews, we all say, 'Never again.' Our students were feeling it, they knew what was happening here — the confluence of events."
Those events – news that a gunman driven by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories had opened fire inside the synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill section, killing 11 and wounding six – prompted a long weekend of planning for Monday's resumption of classes and for dealing with students' questions and sorrow.
Levin said Barrack administrators began planning the assembly with student leaders on Saturday night and also reviewed the school's security precautions, which include cameras and an armed guard. "That is, sadly," she said, "something that we always have to think about."
At Kohelet Yeshiva, a Jewish high school in Merion, head of school Gil Perl addressed students who gathered for morning prayers and – echoing other speakers on Monday – told the teens that it's natural to feel a range of emotions, including anger, sadness and fear.
"I noted that buried within my own feelings of pain is also a glimmer of pride," Perl added. "Not, God forbid, pride that we suffered loss of life. But pride in reading about the victims — one seemingly sweeter, more upstanding, and more dedicated than the next. Pride in the values they stood for, and ultimately died for." He also mentioned HIAS, the Jewish refugee-aid group that reportedly angered the killer. "I'm proud that those are my people, that I'm one of them."
The school's older students, Groner said, began their day with a prayer service, where they were told that love will ultimately triumph over hate. "From a very, very young age, we talk about how we treat each other, with kindness in all the aspects of our lives," she said.
At Barrack, where both the American and Israeli flags were flying at half-staff, students were told that an unnamed supporter of the school had pledged to match any donations to Pittsburgh's Tree of Life congregation from Barrack students and parents. The message there, for kids in grades six to 12, dealt more forcefully with coming to terms with evil in the world.
"We are here to say that we are a shared community with a shared heart, and that hatred against Jews may have existed for millennia, but we are stronger than this hatred," Levin told the students, "and it is our shared responsibility to shut it down." One by one, students came up and took the microphone to deliver their own messages of resilience, and condemnations of gun violence.
Ruthie Cohen, a senior, noted that her generation has grown up with grim news of school shootings but that this one – in a synagogue so similar to ones they've attended in the Philadelphia suburbs — felt different.