Eighth Graders at Bornblum Jewish Community School stand in front of their Hostage Hearts project.

One of the things I have come to realize working in a Jewish Day School is how much the rhythms of our school’s daily life are affected by the world around us. In 2020, it was Covid that upended our world. For the better part of three years, everything we did revolved around or was informed by the pandemic.

A student begins work on creating sensory Hanukkah cards for ADI Negev.

Now, another such moment preoccupies our thoughts and our daily lives – the war in Israel and the exponential rise of antisemitism around the world.

Like those early days of Covid when we struggled to understand what was before us and how to respond, so too beginning on October 8th, we found ourselves in such a position. We knew we were entering a period of great upheaval, and it felt like the ground was shifting beneath our feet. Overcome by grief and shock ourselves, we were also acutely aware that we had a responsibility to help our staff and students and their families process what was happening. More than anything else, we felt we had to provide our students and staff with accurate and age-appropriate information and give them the opportunity to not feel helpless in the face of tragedy.

Our Leadership Team agreed that giving students the chance for meaningful action, the chance to bring light into the darkness and to engage in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) was the key to helping everyone process what was going on around us.

Immediately, prayers for the State of Israel, the soldiers, and the hostages were added to our daily tefillot. We also knew that action without education would be less meaningful. As such, everything we have done has been anchored in education about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, current events related to the war, and the impact on Jews around the world. We have also provided space for students and families to ask tough questions or just to pause together because we value the social and emotional well-being of our community.

The first Tikkun Olam project Bornblum students participated in was to raise money for school supplies for more than 400 students at Kibbutz Sde Boker who had been displaced by the war. Students in 5th through 8th grade held an empathy interview with a member of the Kibbutz where they learned about the evolving situation and the immediate needs of the Kibbutz. Students brought in more than $800 to help the students on the Kibbutz.

Shortly after the Sde Baker collection, Bornblum welcomed two Israeli students to our school. Bornblum welcomed the Hakim family with open arms and did whatever we could to give these young children a sense of normalcy while they were away from home. While their stay was only for a few weeks, we are at the ready to support families who are in Memphis temporarily.

Quickly we realized that our school had several faculty whose families in Israel were in harm’s way, or at very least dealing with the trauma of war. Our school community wanted to do something to support these extended Bornblum family members. Parents and staff contributed more than $2,500 to purchase “Buy Me” gift cards for the parents, siblings and children of any faculty member who is living in Israel. These gift cards can be used at hundreds of stores and online to purchase essential needs or special items that would make life a little easier.

Students had the opportunity to participate in an Empathy Interview with Alit Wiel-Shafran from a kibbutz who is currently housing displaced Israelis due to war.

Around this time, the Bornblum Hearts project was born. With the inspiration of Michal Almalem, Bornblum’s Jewish Studies Principal, students created 240 clay hearts inscribed with the names of the hostages whom Hamas had taken. Students learned about the lives of the hostages. Each heart was attached to a red heart balloon and displayed at a special community Kabbalat Shabbat where our community took time to sing songs and say special prayers for Israel. The hearts were then transferred to the front entrance of the school where they remain on display. When a hostage is freed, the clay heart is replaced with a red vinyl heart. The clay hearts will be returned to the hostages or their families, hopefully by our eighth graders if they can go to Israel this spring.

Aware that the Memphis Jewish Federation had launched an emergency relief campaign for Israel, our students wanted to support this effort too. They sold and made Bornblum Stands with Israel T-shirts and hoodies and donated more than $600 to the Federation campaign.

Lastly, as of the time of writing this article, our students were visited by Elie Klein of Adi Negev Nahalat Eran, a facility in southern Israel that cares for people with multiple disabilities and is providing for the rehabilitation needs of citizens and soldiers injured on and since October 7th. Students conducted an empathy interview with Klein and are working on creating sensory cards for the residents of Adi Negev as well as other Design Thinking projects throughout the year.

As the war continues and the effects around the world continue to develop, we will remain steadfast not just in our support for Israel, but in providing real and impactful opportunities for our students, families, and staff to make a difference and to feel as though they can participate in the healing of a very fractured world.