Except for the day of 9/11, I have never felt as broken as an SAR teacher as I did this week. But I have never felt prouder either.
I have been teaching Judaic studies at SAR Academy for over 20 years. I remember the atmosphere on the day the Twin Towers came down, when we were staggering around, seeking to comfort and be comforted. But mainly, we wanted to know what to do for the kids. How can you rebuild for children a secure world that has crumbled? How can you make them feel safe in a world where suddenly adults feel threatened? Just last week we had a 9/11 memorial program at the academy.
This past Tuesday, returning to school the morning after the revelation that our Middle School associate principal had been arrested on charges of producing child pornography, we had a collective flashback. Of course this event pales in scope to the destruction of the World Trade Center, but the feeling in the pit of my stomach was the same. There was the sense of betrayal by someone we had trusted. Colleagues were feeling personally vulnerable and violated, unsure how to give or receive reassurance. But most of all, we struggled with how to talk to the children, hundreds and hundreds of children, whose previously familiar world was suddenly foreign terrain. How can you answer a fifth grade girl who asks how a rabbi could do such a thing? How can you tell class after class to confide suspicious overtures to an adult they trust when an adult they trusted just betrayed that trust?
On September 11, concrete and mortar fell to an enemy from without. At SAR this week, security and trust came crashing down, brought low by an enemy from within. The words of this week’s Torah reading—until your highest and most fortified walls, which you trust, come down—will seem superfluous.
And yet, I have never been prouder to identify as a member of the SAR family. Somehow, from the moment that the FBI knocked on his door on Shabbat afternoon, through (at this writing) 72 hours of no sleep, unimaginable pressure and continuous motion, Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, the academy’s principal, hit every right note. He was present. He was patient. He was everywhere, meeting with every group. But more than anything, he was honest. And with us, the teachers, he was human and vulnerable. Every question was worthy of an answer. No step was skipped. Because of our architectural structure, we are called an open school. But in this crisis SAR earned the name. It is more than our outer walls that are transparent.
Experts in the field will tell you that no test exists to determine in advance which teacher might harbor a sinister side, which Dr. Jekyll is hiding Mr. Hyde. They will tell you, as Dr. Norman Blumenthal told us, that there was nothing more that SAR could have done to prevent this from happening.
Asher Lovy, survivor and activist, wrote, “As of now it doesn’t seem like SAR did anything improper, either in his hiring or in the wake of his arrest. SAR does screen its teachers. It does perform background checks. But it’s important to remember that any screening techniques a school uses are all retrospective. They don’t have any way of predicting whether or not a teacher will abuse children, or screening for potentially abusive teachers. That silver bullet doesn’t exist.”
Until that silver bullet is invented, the best we can do is to educate our students and community and model what it means to be transparent. The story of the World Trade Center is also the story of the first responders, the survivors and those whose physical and mental health has been affected to this day. It is a story of heroic reaction to circumstances no one should ever have to deal with. It is a story of responsibility of those who accepted the burden of rebuilding in the new reality. It is still going on. SAR’s sensitive staff has already begun the process of rebuilding the inner lives of its students.
Associate Principal Rebecca Ostro Nagata captured the reality when she told the students, “You’ll help us and we’ll help you.”
May no school community ever have to go through an experience like this one. But if even one learns from what is happening to us and emulates the many people who have risen to the task, then from the depths of grief will have arisen towering strength.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg teaches Judaic Studies and JudeoTech at SAR Academy. He is rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills and author, among other books, of The Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah.