I spent 15 fantastic years teaching science at SAR. As a non-Jewish teacher raised in suburban Ohio, I was initially apprehensive to take the job. Back in 2008, I was new to the New York area, starting a new job in an environment with which I had no familiarity. I was worried about not fitting in and about the fact that I barely knew anything about Judaism. During August in-service, my new colleagues were kind and consistently leaned over to translate Hebrew or explain something that they thought I could use help understanding. When classes began, I was assigned an advisory group, and those students were “my crew.” They explained a lot to me: What is a chagigah? Why can’t you eat a cheeseburger? What happens on a Shabbaton? You’re telling me that random people will just host you, a stranger, in their house over the Sabbath. Are you serious? Needless to say, I asked a lot of questions. Over time, I grew as an educator but, equally importantly, I gained a deep appreciation and understanding of Modern Orthodox Jewish life and culture. The profound connections, rich traditions, and strong values were imprinted on me, and each day that I went to work, I was proud to have become part of the culture. Even after 15 years at SAR, some helpful students and colleagues would lean over and say “that means…” but, my response was usually, “I know.” I had become the “resident scholar” of Judaism for my own family and friends. This year, though, I made the difficult decision, for my own family’s needs, to switch from SAR to a non-Jewish school.
On Saturday October 7th, as I saw the news of Hamas’ attack on Israel, one of my first thoughts was, “Oh my gosh, no one here knows. It’s Saturday and Shmini Atzeret. When the holiday ends, people are going to be smacked with this terrible news and forever changed.” I thought about all the kids who had recently left for their gap year in Israel. I thought about all the people I knew who had made aliyah. I thought about all my former colleagues who have family and friends there. I thought about SAR and knew that the upcoming weeks were going to be difficult, and it felt extremely strange and unsettling that I was not going to be there to support my SAR family.
On Sunday night, October 8, my new head of school and our Upper School Principal sent an email providing guidance and support in navigating the current events. But as I entered my new school on Monday morning, it felt strange. Most students were smiling, and it felt like a normal day. None of the students I encountered were visibly upset or talking about the horrific events of the weekend. I went about my day, but I could not stop thinking about my SAR community and what must be happening at the school – discussions, processing groups, communal prayer, love and support. I felt sadness on so many levels – sadness around the war that Israel was embarking on, the lives that had been lost, and the recognition that terrorism against the Jewish people is still present in our world. I felt helpless as well as guilty, mostly because I was not there to support all my dear SAR colleagues, students, and alumni. Later in the week, my new Head of School spoke to the student body and acknowledged the awful events. He related his message to the theme of the year and core values of the school, including kindness and service, which I thought was beautiful. He asked the students to put people first, to act with kindness always, and to reject division within the community. He said that we know that when we unite, we are strong and can get through even the toughest of times.
Throughout the week, the school set up spaces for all to process and discuss the impact of the events. I didn’t attend mostly because I didn’t yet feel a part of the community at this new school and, to be honest, being a “first year teacher” is a lot of work – I couldn’t give up my precious time. However, when we had a two-hour block of time set aside for a community meeting and the entire upper school gathered in the auditorium, my emotions hit me hard. The first hour included several students speaking to the entire student body. The stage was set by the principal explaining that sharing stories makes us all more knowledgeable and empathic. Each speaker took to the podium and explained about how the attacks have personally affected them. It was impactful and heartbreaking, and tears streamed down my face. Afterwards there were different spaces for students and faculty to reflect, discuss, or just emote. Choices included a gathering with a rabbi, a writing room, an art space, a dance space, and a space to talk with school psychologists, among others. I went to the room with the rabbi because I knew that room would feel like home to me. The rabbi created a space for all to share, and most began by stating their names, after which everyone inevitably stated they were Jewish and shared a story or a feeling. I felt comfortable in this space and raised my hand. My heart beating fast while trying to keep my composure, I said, “I’m Ms. Germano and I am new to the school. I am not Jewish, but I was a teacher at SAR for 15 years.” I looked around the room and received acknowledgement from all the nodding heads – they knew. I shared with them my fears and sadness. I didn’t realize how much I needed that space, and I was thankful that my new school took the time to give it to me and to all who needed it. I also hoped that, by being open and vulnerable, the students in that room would know that I am a person who understands and a person with whom they can openly talk should they need anything.
After that meeting, I hugged a lot of the female faculty who are Jewish, whom I barely knew, but at that moment, we were the same, sharing the same feelings. I walked straight back to my desk and immediately wrote an email to Rabbi Harcsztark and Rabbi Kroll. I had to share my feelings, to let them know I am thinking of everyone in the Jewish community and to let them know that this non-religious school took time to discuss and process the attacks. I wanted SAR students (and now all of you, Jewish Link readers) to know that at least one school is taking time from its busy day to share, discuss, and process, and that this non-Jewish teacher is sharing the heartache of the Jewish community.