Tree of Life

I was in the middle of writing a lighter blog post Saturday morning when I saw the news alert about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Over the next few hours, Dan and I pored through the Facebook posts from friends – some living in Pittsburgh, one who had once been affiliated with the Tree of Life congregation, and many who simply shared how horrified, sad and dismayed they were.

“What happened?” Ryan asked, after listening to us talk about it for a few minutes.

While Ryan is old enough to know about these tragedies, sometimes we’re not sure how much he processes or really understands. But he needs to hear the truth.

“A man who hates Jewish people went into a synagogue and starting shooting. Some people died. It’s very sad.”

He was quiet for a few seconds.

“Should we post something on Dan and Ryan’s Jewish School?” Ryan asked.

Dan and Ryan started a Facebook page around the time Ryan was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah to share their journey through Judaism. Ryan posts on the page every week for Shabbat and Havdalah, and for the Jewish holidays. Dan tries to explain the weekly Torah portion to Ryan and sometimes, Ryan will share his interpretation. They also write about other relevant Jewish topics.

Thanks to social media, Ryan has learned appropriate social cues and can converse very well with people in writing. Ryan is often very quiet when we are out in a group – especially a group where he doesn’t know many people well. Some people have never even heard him talk (which makes us all laugh as he does not stop taking at home). Then he’ll post something on Instagram or Facebook and they are blown away by his writing and what’s inside him.

“Yes, I think you should definitely post something on your Jewish page,” I said

“What do I say?” he asked. “Can you help me, Daddy?”

“Say what you feel,” Dan said.

“I don’t know what I feel. Tell me what to say.”

“Do you think it’s sad what happened at the synagogue?”

“Yes. Can I say we are heartbroken?” Ryan asked.

“You can.” 

“What do we say about the people who were shot?” 

“You can send our prayers to their families,” I suggested.

He wrote two different posts – one in his personal page and one the Jewish page. This was on his: I am so sad to hear about this shooting that happened at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. We are very heartbroken and feeling very badly about the people who were killed. We are sending them prayers and love!

Jordan was sitting quietly during all of this.

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“It could happen to us,” he said quietly.

It hit me that if this were 14 -year-old me saying the same thing, my parents probably would have replied with something like, “No, it won’t. This is very unusual and the chances of it happening to us are very slim.” But today’s teens have constant access to news and have grown up hearing about school shootings and hate crimes. A deadly shooting at a synagogue – the worst attack on the Jewish community in US history – brought it even closer to home.

“It could,” Dan said. “But you can’t live your life in fear. Because then you’re not living your life.”

Our discussion continued well beyond that and throughout the day yesterday. Like many people, we’re still trying to process this, although I’m not sure it’s possible to really process it all. Yesterday, I spoke with two people who each had a connection with a different victim. What are the odds of that?

Tiny Giant Steps is a blog about being a working mom of twins, one with autism. It’s not meant to be political, so while that’s the logical next paragraph for this blog entry, you’ll have to find another blog if you want to read a post about our administration, guns, and the state of our country. However, I will end with two thoughts:

  1. How you talk to your kids about these types of tragic events is a personal decision. But especially in today’s times, it’s so important to have the discussions – in an age appropriate way – and keep the lines of communication open.
  2. We can’t become complacent and allow hate to be the new normal. Whether it’s Jews, another minority group, or anyone who is different, I believe teaching our children to stand up for themselves and for others when they encounter anti-semitism, discrimination and hatred is essential. We need to stand strong together and keep love and kindness alive.

My thoughts and prayers are with the members of the Tree of Life Synagogue and my sincere condolences to the families of the victims. May their memory be a blessing.

Teaching Tolerance

On Thursday afternoons, my Aunt Sue and Ryan have a tradition. After Ryan does his homework, Sue takes him to Starbucks for a treat. Some days they read together, and other days they just talk. But every Thursday, Ryan will take a picture and post it on Instagram, with a comment about how much fun he had. The Starbucks staff knows him and are always very kind to him. It’s one of his favorite places.

Yesterday went a little differently. When Sue and Ryan walked into Starbucks, three middle school age girls were sitting at the front table. When they saw Ryan, they began whispering, pointing and laughing. Sue immediately was aware they were making fun of him. She bought Ryan his treat and sat at a table on the other side of the room, watching as the girls took out their laptops, looked at something, then looked back at Ryan continued to laugh. Sue was fighting back tears by this point and wondering how aware Ryan was of what was going on. He can be pretty perceptive. She asked him if the girls went to his school, and he said yes.

When Sue went to throw out their trash, she passed by the girls’ table and felt compelled to say something.

“Hi,” Sue said. The girls looked up, curious. “What grade are you in?” 

Two of the girls said seventh and one said eight (Ryan’s grade).

“I’m a teacher,” Sue continued. “And one of the things I teach students is tolerance. Do you know what that is?” 

The girls nodded and affirmed they did, exchanging glances and looking a little scared.

“Good,” said Sue, pointedly turning her head to look at Ryan. “Then remember to always be tolerant.” 

And with that, she and Ryan left. (Way to go, Sue!)

When I saw them a little later, Sue relayed the story quietly to Jordan (Ryan’s twin brother) and I. I asked Ryan afterwards if he knew the name of the eight grader at Starbucks. When he told us, Jordan and I were shocked, as this was a girl who was at Jordan’s Bar Mitzvah last year. Who sat there and heard him talk about inclusion and sacrifice – including the sacrifices Ryan makes to adjust to what can sometimes be a loud and unpredictable world. Although Jordan does not see her as much this year, we couldn’t imagine her making fun of anyone.

Jordan and I agreed if he had been with them at Starbucks (once in awhile Jordan joins Sue and Ryan) the whole situation never would have happened. No one would dare make fun of Ryan in front of Jordan. He is very protective of Ryan and he thinks the kids know he would not let them get away with it.

Our district does a lot to promote anti-bullying and many students at Ryan’s school have known him since kindergarten. The vast majority are either kind and inclusive or don’t really pay attention to him. I know there are also those who make fun of Ryan – or anyone who is a little different – behind their backs. I never thought there are others who would blatantly laugh in his face. At his special place.

It made me very sad. I know some kids are immature or insecure and may be completely different people when they grow up. It’s just too bad they don’t have good role models now to help them get there. Role models like my friend’s daughter, who recently defended a boy with autism at her new school against bullies, “Because,” she said, “What if that were Ryan? It would break my heart to see Ryan picked on like that.” Or like my other friend’s daughter, who defended Ryan in gym class a few years ago when another boy was whispering about him. Or like Jordan, who has written a book and many songs in support of kids with autism.

I guess we just have to take comfort in the fact that there are more good and tolerant young people in the world than intolerant ones. And hope they can stand up for the kids who need them to.

Every Thursday, Ryan posts a picture of his time at Starbucks on Instagram with a comment about how much fun he had. I believe even if he didn’t express it or answer our questions about it, Ryan knew to some degree what those girls were doing yesterday. Because it was the first Thursday he did not post a thing.