Can It Happen Here?


The horrific stories of children mass-murdering their classmates has, until now, arrived with postmarks from obscure towns ó Littleton, Colo., Pearl, Miss., Jonesboro, Ark., Springfield, Ore., Paducah, Ky. ó whose very names bespeak a psychological and geographic distance from our hometown Jewish schools.

But the fallout from the most recent school massacre has stimulated a discussion among Jewish teachers about whatís been happening ìout there,î and just how close is the madness, really?

Frances Urman, acting principal at Manhattanís Solomon Schechter High School, said that the Jewish Theological Seminary is setting up a chat room for Jewish educators to talk about the Colorado murders.Rabbi Mayer Schiller, who teaches Talmud at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, said, ìI can certainly tell you that the [rabbis] discussed it among themselves and tried to evaluate to what extent any of it might be relevant to us.îAt the time of the killings, Chaim Lauer, executive director of New Yorkís Board of Jewish Education, was on the March of the Living pilgrimage, along with several devastated Jewish teens from Denver.ìWhen you are in Israel,î said Lauer, ìand youíre 10 miles away from where the children of Maíalot [a 1970s terror incident] are buried, and Colorado kids that have friends in Littleton are on your trip, the dangers of terrorism, fanaticism and insanity combine with powerful impact.îPaul Levine, associate executive director of the Jewish Board of Family and Childrenís Services, said Jewish schools are different.

Traditionally, Jewish kids are better socialized and donít try to work out their problems through aggression. Thereís less of a tendency for Jews to join gangs. Jewish kids donít feel as alone; families are still fairly supportive and involved.îìJewish youth tend to be more self-destructive than anti-social,î said Rabbi Joel Dinnerstein, a senior consultant with New York Cityís Department of Mental Health.Many day schools have security guards to protect the school from outsiders, but no one knew of any Jewish school that needed a metal detector, or a guard for the inner halls.ìIn our schools,î said Solomon Schechterís Urman, ìstudents have given divrei Torahs [religious teachings] about what happened. But in discussion groups, the students could not relateî to the nihilism of the small-town killers.At Columbine, the killers, reported to be worshipers of Hitler, wore shirts proclaiming ìserial killerî and displayed swastikas. At the Solomon Schechter, as in other day schools, a dress code prohibits shirts with slogans or insignias.Rabbi Schiller agreed, however, that alarms should go off at studentsí adherence to some of the stranger, darker rock groups, such as Marilyn Manson. But with yeshiva kids, ìitís almost always a case of titillation, not emulation.

According to Urman, ìhigh school students want to know where they stand and what is expected. It can be transmitted through prayer and religion or other means, but clearly something is lacking in public school education.îRabbi Schiller noted, as did others, that though prayer and religion have been taken out of public schools, as soon as tragedy happens, everyone from the president to the principal to parents rush to ask for prayer in response.So, he asked, why not allow prayer into public schools before tragedy happens? He pointed out that ìthe traditional public school of several decades ago, where you had prayer and Bible reading, was a far healthier place than public schools today. Ö To me itís pretty clear. In traditional Catholic and Protestant schools, you donít see the violent extremes either. Letís admit that institutionalized religion and traditional morality can be a factor.îIt is a different and lesser country, he added, when you canít have the Ten Commandments in a classroom but you can have kids with swastikas and ìGothî T-shirts, making videos of mass murder for a class project.Unlike Littletonís high school, no yeshivas reported problems between the ìjocksî and the ìbrainiacs.î Coach Joey Hoenig, of Rambam High Schoolís basketball program, said he saw no evidence of friction, and that teams in the Yeshiva League were often comprised and supported by students of every academic level.ì

Although the severe manifestation of violence may be alien to the Jewish school,î said Rabbi Schiller, ìthe notion of how much people who are not ëiní are hurting, thatís important to know. There has to be more kindness to the people we think are lower in the social pecking order. Sometimes, to give a smile or to have a conversation with a peripheral person, to teach that is worth volumes of Gemara.îRabbi Dinnerstein said that for the last three weeks he has been filling in for a therapist who runs a family support group that gets 20-30 parents every Sunday night on Avenue J, in the heart of Flatbush. There are similar groups in Borough Park, upstate Monsey, and Lawrence, L.I.ìThere are kids, 13 to 19, [from Orthodox high schools] who are not coming home at night,î he said. ìThey hang out on Ocean Parkway or certain pool halls and pizza places. We see some drug-induced violence and rage-aholics, but it hasnít yet taken on any collective identity. They may hang out together because misery loves company but there is no hate-group like we saw in Colorado.îRabbi Dinnerstein said problems are more likely to be manifested within the family unit. One safety lid is ìthe communityís pressure for a certain standard of public conduct.îYet, he continued, ìMany kids are getting expelled from yeshivas. If youíre not the cream, the yeshivas donít want anything to do with you. But that leaves a lot of average teens with average adolescent problems whose needs are not being met. A lot of those kids are on the street right now, or sleeping till 11:30 in the morning while their parents are at work. They are school-less. Some go to public school but many do not because the public schools are such a different social world.îLevine, of the Jewish Board for Family and Childrens Services, a UJA-Federation beneficiary, said the number of homeless dropouts was ìmaybe in the hundreds.îHe added that in the ultra-Orthodox community, ìyoungsters donít get exposure to the elements in the culture that seem to sanction violence; many donít watch television, go to the movies or play video games.î