Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

A collection of letters written by yesomim, yesomos, an alman, and an almanah

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Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

So you’ve been told that a child in your class lost a parent, and now you’re being flooded with lots of mixed messages:

“Treat her just like everyone else—make sure she doesn’t feel like a nebach.”
“Don’t think you could treat her like everyone else—she’s so vulnerable. Let her let it out in school.”
“Make sure to give a ton of TLC.”
“Make sure you never talk to her in front of friends or she’ll shut down.”
“There are a lot of good people in the picture … stay out.”
“She needs you in her life.”

Are you as dizzy as I am?

When I read this list aloud to a group of Zisel’s Links members, they were silent and then said, “Ohhhhh, so that’s why our teachers often didn’t know what to do!” Right.

After hearing and reading so many different things, we usually opt for the simplest one: Do nothing.

But there’s that niggling feeling of “Something’s not right! It can’t be that this is my role in chinuch …”

And you’re right.

So having sat with children ages 4-19 and hearing a variety of things that they found meaningful and things they found upsetting, I’ve identified certain patterns. And while my research is informal and by no means “THE” answer, I believe it offers some insight.

Emes: Let’s start with a basic premise to all relationships—honesty. Viewing your student as the same girl or boy they were yesterday with the only change being that they lost a parent is respectful and probably the most honest approach. Sometimes loss triggers additional struggles and it’s so wonderful when a student knows that even if they go through ups and downs, their mechanchim/mechancos don’t see them as “less than” in any way. However, educators are human, and sometimes, we do view a student as compromised or struggle to see them as respectable. In those cases, just say nothing, as children have finely tuned radar that can pick up false chizuk and compliments a mile away.

Boundaries: Every single one of us has triggers. For those of us who struggled academically, we may spot that student struggling and want to save him or her from the pain we dealt with. For other teachers who may’ve been sidelined socially, that child will hit our radar. And the same is true for family situations. But the truth is that if we’ve been a teen or adult in pain, we’ll relate to pain. Some of us are used to constantly being in a helping position and have a hard time seeing someone in need and not doing something about it. And that’s a very good thing. The trouble is that the path from concern to blurring of boundaries is a short one.

Boundaries—of time and space—allow for safety and prevent burn out. I cry when I hear the same story again and again: The child’s mother was in the hospital, she was needy and found a warm and caring teacher who told her to feel free to always call or come over. She did just that. A lot. It got to the teacher. And suddenly, the teacher was avoiding her and her calls. Abandonment hit hard, so she chased the teacher harder, which only served to drive the teacher further and further away.

And then the girl lives with mistrust in relationships forever after.

I strongly suggest avoiding “open ended” kindness. Commit to what you can realistically maintain, e.g., “I’m always available during lunch time on Wednesdays” or “I have free time on Sundays from 7 to 8 p.m. and would be happy to talk then.” It might seem cold at first but trust me, it’s the greatest chessed.

Respect: Grief is a singular journey and no two grievers will experience it the same way or at the same pace. And that’s how it should be. Allow the child to feel whatever they’re feeling. If they’re sad, let them be sad. Be there for them without trying to “fix” their sadness. Let them know it’s OK that they’re sad.

Emotions are transient. They don’t last forever and will pass through us on their own—if we let them. Respect the child’s innate knowledge of their needs and don’t push them to do things they’re not ready for. If a girl doesn’t want to join Chagigah, don’t make her Chagigah head in an effort to “force” her to get involved and be happy. If they’re happy, let them be happy. Be there for them without trying to make them “remember” their pain. It’s OK for them to be happy, just as it’s OK for them to be sad. Every grieving child deserves the right to decide how they want to grieve.

Seek support: You don’t have to figure out how best to support the child on your own. While it’s important not to breach the child’s confidences unnecessarily, you can—and often should—reach out for guidance; from your principal, the school guidance counselor, a rav, etc. You can always feel free to call our office to discuss a situation or gain clarity on how best to approach a child. While we can’t divulge whether or not the child is one of our members, due to confidentiality laws, we can offer targeted advice based on our experiences with close to 3,000 children.

As you read through this collection of letters, you’ll hear from students who wanted to be drawn out, and those who resisted every attempt. Some whose losses are fresh, and some whose losses happened years ago. Some who are still hurting, and some who have healed a bit. It’s a mix of pain and perseverance, suffering and strength, tears and triumph. But most of all, it reinforces our belief that there’s no one-size- fits-all guide.

Instead, it’s our hope that this collection will begin a conversation and engender more sensitivity.

With gratitude and respect,

Sarah Rivkah Kohn

Founder & Director, Links Family

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah,

What stands out for me most is how you handled my bar mitzvah.

My father was niftar when I was 12 and in your class. You came to the shivah and were there when my friends awkwardly came too.

You made sure to call my mother every few weeks to tell her how I was doing in cheder and offered to help with whatever it was that I needed. I felt so loved and understood in your class.

The next year’s rebbi was good but not as warm as you. I have zero ta’anos about anything he said or did but I definitely thought three times before asking him for help.

I was very nervous about my bar mitzvah. My grandfather was coming but still … I didn’t know how things would play out.

To make matters worse, there were two class bar mitzvahs that night and the rebbi said he would split his time between both. It made sense but I was so nervous.

It also didn’t help that my mother and married sisters were hyperventilating about it being the first simchah without my father and I didn’t want to cause more stress by reminding them that it was MY bar mitzvah and I was the MOST nervous.

Rebbi, you always made it a point to check in with me, so it felt natural to go to you and say, “I’m nervous.” You validated everything and then said, “How would you feel if I came for the night?” I was so excited and I was happy you asked me.

You called my mother and she was so happy too.

You made my night.

I’m in mesivta now, and one might think you’d have forgotten about me. But no, you call me every two months or so to say hi. This has made it so easy for me to talk to you about stuff, and I know you always have my back.

Thank you, Rebbi!

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah,

Firstly, I want to acknowledge the tightrope teachers walk. I can only imagine how difficult it is—half of your students will walk out of high school wishing you’d tried harder, half will leave wishing you’d just left them alone. And I have no way to help you tell the difference.

But I’d like to tell you a bit about me.

Most of you have known me far longer than the few years I sat in your classrooms. We live in a small community, that’s how things work here. I’m sure many of you davened for my mother when she was sick. I’m sure many of you sighed that heavy, “What will be?” laced sigh when she died. She left behind three little ones—the youngest being me, all of 4 years old. And the echo of those sighs have followed me throughout my life, as I turn every corner and confront every milestone.

When I showed up in your classrooms close to 10 years later, those sighs had long been pushed aside to make room for newer ones, for younger orphans, for younger children. I was a tenured orphan, a pro at awkward pauses and pitying gazes. On top of that, I was a kid with a mission—to appear as normal and well-adjusted as possible. Just one of the bunch. Not special, not different, just normal. Talking to one of you wouldn’t have been normal, and so I never did. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to. I really, truly needed to.

For most of elementary school, I was fine. Some days, it annoyed me that I didn’t have a mother. Things would have been so much simpler with a mother. And there were days when I wondered if it was normal to be OK, to spend my days laughing with friends rather than crying into my pillow. There were also the rare nights when someone said something particularly insensitive to me, and I did cry into my pillow. But primarily, I was fine.

And then I got to high school, and suddenly found myself drowning in waves of grief. I thought I was going crazy. I’d been without a mother for more years than with, it was an event that had taken place so long ago! And yet, I’d go home at the end of a nice, normal day … and cry. I’d cry because I wanted my mother. Because I missed her. Because I longed, more than anything, to stay up late schmoozing with her at the kitchen table. Because I so badly wanted to dry the dishes she washed as I talked to her about my day. I didn’t know what was happening. I was so confused. I had lived so many years accepting her absence as a simple fact of my life, and all of a sudden, this? Why now?

I don’t have a simple answer to that question. What I do know is that it isn’t mine alone. That when a young child loses a parent, they don’t necessarily grieve right away. It’s too much pain for such a little body to hold. When a young child loses a parent, whether or not she understands what it means, she’s still a child. And a child plays jump rope at recess and tells secrets at lunch and giggles with her friends. Hashem protects her from what she can’t handle. But when that child gets a bit older and her loss finally hits, to the world, it’s old news. A teenager or adult has shivah, shloshim, aveilus. But what about me? I never sat shivah. I never confronted what I lost … until I got to high school.

I’m writing this letter because I wish even one of you would’ve known that it wasn’t old news. That the pain was raw and fresh, as if my loss had just occurred. That there were days when I would get lost inside my brain, imagining a world where my mother existed. There were days when I desperately wanted someone to see through me, to see the pain that was eating me up. I wish I could’ve been accorded some of the sensitivity and guidance given to those whose pain was fresh and visible.

I know you all try your hardest. All I ask of you, please, is to look for those little kids who aren’t so little anymore. Remember that father who left behind a newborn baby? The mother who left behind a tender 7-year-old? When those children reach high school, when they graduate to the tumultuous teenage years, I ask you to be conscious of the pain they’re feeling. Be cognizant of the help they might still need. I know I looked fine. That was my goal. I just wish one of you would have looked a tiny bit deeper. If you had removed even one layer, you would’ve seen the storm raging inside.

Thank you for all you’ve done for me. From the bottom of my heart, I couldn’t have asked for better teachers.

Forever grateful,

Your student

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

I never dreamed you didn’t know.

We were a small school, in a building that contained nursery through 12th grade, and so I figured there was no way that you, the ninth grade mechaneches, didn’t know that I’d lost my mother in fifth grade.

My father remarried when I was in seventh grade and the principals breathed a sigh of relief. Now they could stop worrying about this motherless student.

My stepmother showed up to plays, graduations, mother-daughter brunches, and PTA. Teachers were open with her because she spoke to them as though our relationship was one of love and openness. But really, it wasn’t quite that way.

Ours was a tricky relationship. Not bad, chas v’shalom, but tricky. Because she wasn’t my mother, I took offense to the “normal” critique she passed on, such as, “Your teachers say that your loose-leaf could use some organizing—let’s work on it this Sunday.” She didn’t mean anything terrible by it, but think of it like a husband walking into his shanah rishonah with instructions, even gentle ones like, “I see you could use help with folding linen, so let me get my sister to help you.”

Our relationship was new and fragile. I needed mega-doses of love, understanding, and trust before I was ready to accept anything else. So by telling her about my faults and struggles, you put our relationship on a constant “two steps back” pattern.

I felt frustrated with you. Very frustrated. Eventually, my frustration gave way to anger, and I refused the job you offered me, which was a shocker to you. So you called me out of class and tried to get me to talk, but I wouldn’t say one word. I was sure you’d repeat whatever I said to my stepmother, and that was the last thing I needed.

That was when you spoke to a fellow teacher and asked her to find out why I was so angry. You knew that she’d taught me in eighth grade and I’d loved her. That really was a brilliant move.

She asked me to stay after school to help her with some graphics, as we’d worked on that together for yearbook. Twenty minutes in, she got straight to it: “What’s the deal with you copping out of jobs?”

And I guess something snapped in me because I told her about all the “betrayals.” All the times when things about me—big or small—were shared with my stepmother. She was quite surprised and let me know that she’d use the office phone to clarify matters with you.

Ten minutes later, she dropped the bombshell: You didn’t know my mother had passed away. You didn’t know I had a stepmother.

I burst into tears. I don’t know if it was relief that I hadn’t been purposely hurt or anger at the adults who didn’t ensure that those who were involved with me at least 40 hours a week knew about my life.

The next few days were a flurry of apologies and requests for me to “tell us how you want to go from here,” and the rest of my ninth and tenth grade years were definitely better.

I’m now in 11th grade and I have you as a teacher once again. PTA rolled around and my stepmother came home with realistic but positive reports. And you pulled me aside prior to PTA and said: “This is what I plan to tell your stepmother. Is that OK?”

You not only created a safe environment for me at school but you’ve also enabled me to build a better connection with my stepmother.

I can’t thank you enough!

Your student

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

It’s three years already … but no, my mother didn’t come back.

Every off-Shabbos, I go home and the food is ehhh. Do you know what a huge deal my mother used to make on my brothers’ off-Shabbosim? Nobody makes a big deal for mine. My father tries but he can’t make cake. Or give hugs. Or sit with me till midnight and hock. That was my mother and not him.

Every Sukkos, every Pesach, every simchah, and every forgotten birthday, I remember that the mother who loved me so deeply isn’t here anymore.

Every time Yizkor rolls around, and my rebbeim—and even my father—leave shul while I stay inside with my 10-year-old brother, I remember that I don’t have a mother.

I’m a good kid. I show up on time. I daven. I learn. But it’s very hard to put myself “in it.” I can be spaced out and down sometimes. A month before the yahrtzeit, a week before Yom Tov, and all the other milestones. And yeah, baruch Hashem for simchos, but I’ve already sat in shul four times and heard my mother’s name being given to another cute niece. And I shook all the hands and said mazel tov all while crying inside because I miss my mother and just want her back.

Mashgiach, I’m writing this letter to you because I know you deal with bachurim who have ups and downs. I know my rebbeim have spoken to you. And I know it’s inevitable that we’ll have a conversation.

You know what will motivate me? Validation. Understanding. Space. And the knowledge that I can’t and won’t be like every other kid here because I worry about very different worries. I constantly see and hear the levayah on mental replay. I feel very lonely many times.

I’ll continue to do the best I can. But please try to understand what I’m going through.

A bachur

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

Losing a parent at any age is very hard, but especially as a teenager in high school.

My father was niftar suddenly. One day he was here and the next day he wasn’t. When I came back to school after shivah, everything was so confusing. Suddenly, everyone was my best friend. Girls who’d never said two words to me before were now passing me notes in middle of class. My marks were going down. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. My mind was rushing with thousands of different emotions, and I didn’t know where to put myself.

Of course, you couldn’t have known all this. I looked so OK! I was smiling, taking notes, and participating in class.

But just because I looked OK, it doesn’t mean I was. Of course, you pulled me aside to ask how I was doing. And of course, I said, “Good! Baruch Hashem!” I was almost able to hear you thinking, “Oh good, she’s OK. We can cross her off the list.” But inside, I was screaming, “Talk to me more!” Did you think I’d spill all my feelings during a one- time conversation? Truthfully, at that point, I didn’t even know my feelings. I was just a huge jumble—I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.

I didn’t even know what I wanted to talk about. I just wanted to TALK! I wish, wish, wish even one teacher would’ve told me, “If you ever want to talk—about anything—just put a note in my cubby. I’ll call you out and I’ll start the conversation!”

So many hard moments could have been avoided had I had that opportunity.

As time went on, things at home settled down and that’s when I went into crisis mode. All of a sudden, the impact of the loss hit me and I was falling. Of course, you wouldn’t have seen it from the outside, except for one thing—I dropped all of my friends.

I’d decided that my group of friends were too immature and I couldn’t handle them anymore. So I just dropped them. But not one teacher said a word to me! Not ONE of you ever came over to me and said, “What are you doing? Now is not the time to drop your friends. Now is when you need them most!”

I don’t know if I would’ve listened, but at least I would’ve known that someone noticed and cared. And maybe you could’ve listened to me as I tried to explain how I felt, and you could’ve helped me sort my feelings. Or maybe you could’ve helped me make new friends instead of leaving me groping in the dark, floundering because I didn’t even know myself what I wanted and needed in a friend.

As I matured and time passed, I sort of realized that I really needed a relationship with a teacher, and it wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t make an effort to start one. So, I did things to get your attention … I put my head down in class, spaced out, talked REALLY loudly, got bad marks, etc. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t

I remember one teacher calling me out and asking me, “Why do you look so sad? Is everything OK?” I bared my soul, saying how everything was so hard … The teacher said some nice things to me and looked like she really cared. And I’m sure she did. I went back to class after our conversation feeling so light and free, thinking, “Finally! I found someone!”

But then … she never followed up. She never called me out again. I’d look at her longingly every time she taught me and think, “Maybe today will be the day she’ll remember to call me out …”

One day, I decided to muster up my courage and go over to her. I didn’t have anything specific to talk about—I just wanted to talk. But I didn’t know how to say that, so I made up some weird question about something we’d learned in class. She was nice and answered me patiently, and we talked for a little. But that was it. Again, she never called me over. I always had to go to her. After a while, I felt stupid, like she wasn’t really interested in me and was just being polite. After all, she never approached me …

Teachers, please—you make the moves! It’s so hard for us to be the ones always initiating, feeling like we’re burdening you or taking up too much of your time. Make us feel like we’re giving, that it’s a two-way relationship. I wish a teacher would’ve called me out to ask my opinion on something or to ask me to do something special for her. I would’ve felt so good. And it probably would’ve fostered a relationship where I would’ve felt comfortable opening up.

And teachers, please—be smart. Don’t call us over in front of the whole class or make it obvious that we’re going to talk to a teacher. Write a note on a test to come to the office or something like that. I don’t know. You’re all very smart, I’m sure you’ll figure something out.

Of course, I did have some teachers who made an effort. The teacher who told me I could leave class if I ever needed to. The teacher who let me do my report in English since I didn’t have my father to help me. The teacher who called me over on Chanukah to tell me she was thinking about me. The teacher who wrote me a letter saying how impressed she was with me. The teacher who called me before Yom Tov to wish me a good Yom Tov. The teacher who noticed I wasn’t feeling well and drove me home.

These things meant so much to me. I felt so good that these teachers noticed me and it made me feel so special. But I needed more than a one-time effort. Consistent follow up would’ve gone a long way in making me feel comfortable enough to share what was truly going on inside me.

Dear teachers, please, please help us. All we want is just to TALK! Thank you,

Your student

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

The year before my father was niftar was tough. It was a year when my father was in treatment, and I wasn’t myself. I was in charge of my siblings and my house. I was taking my siblings home from school, giving them supper, playing games with them, watching them play outside, and putting them to bed. And this was when I was in seventh grade.

I became withdrawn. My class was at a very immature stage, trying to figure out the ins and outs of growing up. And me? I was trying to come to terms with my father’s illness and his very possible death. He was sick with cancer, and I was sure he was going to die. I was scared. I was worried. I was frightened. And I was confiding in no one but myself because no one was supposed to find out that my father was sick.

There I was, burdened with this secret that was eating me up inside. When I get home from school today, will Tatty be home or in the hospital? What am I going to make for lunch tomorrow? What will be when Tatty is no longer here? What will others think of me? Will they treat me normally? What will be with my siblings? How will I grow up without a father?

When the school found out, they tried to help. The high school sent girls to babysit. They arranged for community members to send dinner every night. I hated it. I felt like such a nebach. Like we couldn’t get ourselves together. That hurt. I tried with all my might to stop the high school girls from coming. I told my mother I’d rather babysit all night than have the girls. Sometimes, she gave in. Looking back, I’m not sure which was worse.

In school, I was distracted. I sat in the corner of the classroom and got lost in my thoughts. My grades weren’t terrible, although they were lower than I was used to getting. At that point, it didn’t bother me. Not one drop.

I became isolated from my classmates. How were they supposed to relate to me when I didn’t participate in class and I didn’t care to play with them during recess? I wasn’t interested in having a good time with friends. At that point, I didn’t really care about my friends very much, if at all.

The following year, when my father was niftar, there were a few teachers who made a big difference to me, even if they didn’t know it at the time.

One of them was you—a teacher who smiled at us and gave us what we need individually. If a child needed an advanced program or a remedial program, you worked hard and created it for that student. After a woman in our community passed away, you came into our classroom after the levayah and told us a story about the nifteres. You told us how special this woman was, and how it was sad for all of us because we would miss her. And in the middle, you started crying. I was awed. “Wow! She really cares!”

Another teacher would occasionally ask me how I was doing, and if I was OK. Although I never answered her honestly, it meant a lot to me that she noticed I was withdrawn and cared enough to ask me about it. I appreciated that it was done in an unobtrusive way so that I didn’t feel singled out in front of my entire class.

Another teacher who made a difference called me out the day I came back to school after sitting shivah. She was a very strict teacher, and I was scared of her. She told me that she’d lost her own mother when she was 12, and if I needed anything, I could go to her. And then we went inside the classroom and she treated me exactly like she had before. She was still strict with me, and I was still scared of her. And that was exactly how it should be.

I’ll end with a story that will explain why I’m writing a letter to you, almost 10 years later. When I was sitting shivah for my father, I stayed in my room, refusing to see anyone. I didn’t come down for my principals, nor my teachers, not even for my classmates. Each time someone came, I would get a message, “So-and-so is here, do you want to come downstairs?” Almost every single time, the answer was no. But even though I didn’t go downstairs, I knew exactly who came and when.

On one of the days of shivah, they told me you were there. I debated if I should go downstairs or not. In the end, I decided not to. There were too many people I’d have to see if I went down.

To this day, I regret that decision. I wish I could’ve spoken to you then. I wish I would’ve been smart enough to listen to your words of wisdom and comfort. I wish I would’ve gone downstairs and dealt with my pain head-on. But I didn’t. And I regret it.

I’m sure you would’ve told me something helpful. I have no doubt that I would’ve gained from it. And so now, I’m making up for it. I cannot hear your words of wisdom. But I can imagine what you would have told me.

Thank you,

Your student

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah,

I knew you didn’t know what to say. And yet, you were as careful as possible to make sure that as many inappropriate and maybe impossible idiosyncrasies I have were dealt with in the most comfortable way. Your objectives were clear: to help, but not get in the way of an impossible situation. As challenging as it may have been to walk the tightrope of objectivity and truth, fact and fiction, feelings and happenings, you danced with me over the bridge to a better place. Just that, “Hello, we haven’t spoken in a week, I’m happy to hear your voice,” showed me that someone remembered I was in pain.

You were accepting and understanding, rather than nonjudgmental, which made me feel invited and welcome to speak and voice my opinion, my feelings, my pain, and my questions. You may not have always said the right things, the politically correct phrases, but I understood because your words came from love. I hate to compare but the rebbeim who hurt me most were the ones who told me, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please reach out,” and yet they weren’t available when I did. Or those who saw me take over the helm of the ship that had lost its captain, and didn’t think to offer me the chizuk needed by a 21-year-old bachur who steps into such a daunting task. They may have thought, “He’s so strong, he stepped in beautifully, he’s doing a great job. He probably has a great support system, how much can I add?” They may (or may not) have been correct: I did (or didn’t) have a support system, I am (or am not) so strong, yet I still craved the support of those I knew and trusted, those who set up my foundations for life, those who taught me how to learn the Ketzos and Reb Chaim properly, those who taught me how to understand the basics of Yiddishkeit, those who were supposed to understand without being told.

I craved normalcy, to learn a Rashba or Ramban properly, not only to learn, but also to concentrate on what’s important for other bachurim at my stage. I wanted to grow. Although this can be a tightrope of pressuring someone who can’t be pressured, of pushing someone who can’t be pushed, it would’ve been easier to grow from within if I’d have had the nurturing from without. The same thing can be said in two very different ways … For example, instead of saying, “Why weren’t you by first Seder?” you could’ve said, “It must be so hard trying to juggle a family and keep to the normal schedule of a bachur at the same time. I see you’re really trying. How do we make it easier for you to do that?”

So, dear Rebbi, please understand that as hard as it may be for you to straddle this fence, I’m trying to get as far as I can despite negative feelings, impossible circumstances, fears, and questions. Although at times you may wonder what’s going on inside me, please try to judge me in the best possible light. Please try to see my strengths and weaknesses, consistencies and inconsistencies, actions and decisions, fears and demons, and help me in my quest for calm, tranquility, happiness, and peace within myself.

Thank you, Rebbi.

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

My father passed away when I was pretty young. I had small memories that were like golden flecks fluttering around in the back of my head, but for the most part, life was about moving forward and trying my best. I was done with the grieving stage, and was dealing a lot more with the difficult situations that were the result of my father no longer being a part of my story.

In school, I generally felt pretty normal. I wasn’t the type who took advantage of my situation, but the once-in-a-blue that I was given a little leeway did feel good.

I was comfortable discussing things with my mother, had a sister with whom I was really close, extended family members that I respected, and good smart friends who were always there for me, baruch Hashem. Rarely would things come up that needed another point of view (again, I say, baruch Hashem, because I am so grateful and blessed to have had so many wonderful people in my life to help me become who I am).

The teacher who dealt with my situation best was the one who called me in and let me know she was aware of my situation, and then shared something nice she’d heard about my father. (Clearly, she’d done her homework.) She mentioned that every time she passed by the building that had been sponsored l’iluy nishmas my father, she thought of me.

By introducing herself to me like that, she raised “the topic” with me, said nothing that could be taken offensively, and left the door open for me to share right then and there or come back if I wanted to.

What I didn’t appreciate—although it happened all the time—was when a teacher would share a personal experience of her own and compare it to mine, and then say she knew how I felt. That always put me on the defensive. I just wanted to be validated. My situation was unique and hard, and no, you can and will never know exactly how I feel.

Some of the things that were said to me really hurt me. Looking back now, as an adult, some of those comments are just natural for people to say. But if the person speaking would have put a drop of thought into how I’d feel, they may not have said them. What I’ve learned from my experiences is that you’re better safe than sorry. If you’re not 100 percent sure that what you’re going to say will be appreciated and taken in the correct way, either find out or leave it out.

I really feel that most teachers are trying their best. We’re all human, after all, with unique personalities and strengths. So teachers, I honestly say “thank you” for not giving up and trying to help your students.


A former student

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

Thirty days after my father was niftar, I came back to seminary. That was probably the greatest, craziest, bravest, yet dumbest move I ever made.

I’ll explain.

I felt secure, because I knew I was coming back to a place that was a family, where the teachers and staff members were there to care for their students. I had no doubt I’d get all the help and support I needed at that critical time in my life. But sadly, I was disappointed.

The sem has a tremendous line-up of staff, each one is more amazing than the next. But sometimes, that can be harmful. Personally, I would have felt it more beneficial if ONE teacher would’ve taken me under her wing completely. Asking me how I’m doing when passing me in the hallways, opening up a door for a conversation. Calling me at night just to check in and make sure all is OK. Inviting me over on Thursday nights to just chill and cook with her. Showing me she’s proud when I tried hard and went to class. One person to depend on, to open up to, with whom I could build a solid relationship that could last a lifetime. The other teachers could have simply showed they cared, not ignoring the fact, but not prying or overstepping boundaries.

Going to class wasn’t easy, and I enjoyed my bed or my sister’s apartment much more. So I stayed there. A week could go by and not a single staff member would say a word to me about showing up to class. Maybe, if I was in the hallway during class time, something might have been said to me in a joking matter. But I could have been sitting in my bed for days on end, and the only one who would’ve known would’ve been the eim bayis, who saw me while making her morning rounds. I imagine that if there had been a specific teacher monitoring how I was doing, she would’ve called me or come to my room a few times to get me back into the daily routine. I’m not saying I would’ve gone—but at least I would’ve felt like the school cared. Like it made a difference if I was in the classroom.

I’m OK now. Baruch Hashem, I gained a tremendous amount from the few classes I did attend, but I can’t say I don’t regret all the lessons I missed.

Aside from the emotional part of the year of aveilus, halachos play an important role, too. The hardest for me was the music. The seminary was exceptionally kind and gave me the opportunity to be part of both chagigos by giving me a job so I could be there. Yes, it was weird to listen and dance to music, but I didn’t want to be more of an outcast than I already was so I threw myself into it fully and with the guidance of my rav, I did what I could do. There were other times, though, when I was shocked by the way the staff would let things like that pass. Of course, I don’t blame anyone, it was all meant to be. But after we lit the menorah on Chanukah, did you have to take out the guitar and start singing with it, forcing me to get up and walk out? Or when we went on a cruise, and the music started blaring and everyone started dancing … and now what? I’m not saying we should’ve avoided that part of the trip, but WARN me. Like, hi, its 4 a.m. in America and now I have to call a rav to see if I can even come on the boat. It should’ve been in all the madrichot and staff members’ heads: “Music is assur for her. If there’s going to be music, we have to warn her so she can come prepared.”

There was one thing that helped me tremendously, and that was late curfew. Thanks to the eim bayis. Nights weren’t easy, especially after curfew, when all the girls were back in the dorm and there was not one quiet place to just be alone. Letting me go out whenever I needed—to my friends, to my sister, to the Kosel—was a tremendous help for me and got me through those long hard days. She probably didn’t even realize the effect it had on me, but I believe it helped me survive the year.

Thank you.

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

At a recent assembly, the girls around me were talking about how we missed so many Regents because of COVID, and how it’s so weird to think that it was just two years ago but also feels like forever ago.

As the world drops masks on trains and planes and many restrictions ease, people are so excited to forget—and I get that. I also want to forget. I dumped the box of masks that was collecting dust but I wondered if my throwing it out meant I was throwing out a piece of my father.

My father was my everything. I know it sounds cliché, but he really was amazing. All my siblings felt close to him but I was closest because our personalities really clicked.

When the lockdown hit, he sat our family down and spoke about the fact that we couldn’t be complacent. We had to do whatever was right and we had to daven because nobody would be immune at a time of mageifah …

Ten days later, he developed fever and a hacking cough. I was sure it was a cold. My father hadn’t gone anywhere—no way did he have COVID.

But he did.

And two days later, I woke up to suited-up Hatzolah members in our home, taking him out. I begged to go along but they told us no hospital would let us accompany him.

I was so angry … and that anger has not gone away.

He called us on FaceTime, telling my mother about the long waits … the thirst … the confusion … and that he was going to be hooked up …

I didn’t get to talk to him because those precious few minutes my mother had with him were to manage his care, not to chit chat.

The next time I saw him, he was being lowered into a kever with barely a minyan.

I was so angry … and that anger has not gone away.

After my father passed away, I left the house mask-less and my mother begged me not to, saying, “I can’t lose another one.” I told her I didn’t care. Clearly, nothing had worked.

When we went back to school, it was so awkward because nobody had come to the shivah and I hadn’t been in touch with most of my class during that period. So the re-entry was hard.

And I was so angry! The principal gave us rules—for example, only x number of girls per room. I’d purposely join a full room. Nobody could tell me what to do!

After months of my turning the school upside down, my principal connected me with Zisel’s Links. They helped me give voice to my pain and realize just how angry I was— at the hospital, at Hatzolah, at my mother, at society, at the government, and if I was safe enough to admit it, at Hashem. I’ll never forget how hard I cried and screamed and put down every person in that conversation.

There was quiet listening.

Then I got into therapy, where I spent the first three months going in circles: Why why why why and lots of anger. My behavior in school was still challenging, but they were willing to tolerate it so long as I stayed in therapy. There was also a teacher who listened to my venting. Knowing she got it helped a lot.

It’s two years later, and sometimes, I dream of having a “real” levayah. A “real” shivah. That’s why yahrtzeit, to me, needs to be grand. I took off the day before and after. I’m still working on my anger but I’ve come far enough that I’m much more tolerant of those around me and I’m better with rules.

It definitely took time.

If you have a student who lost a parent to COVID, know that it’s really not regular grief. It’s prolonged. It’s complicated. We’ve learned too early to fight for survival and to distrust authority and governing systems. That, I’m learning, is a messed-up way for a kid to look at the world, but it’s a reality I battle daily.

I thank my teachers and principals for putting up with me. For their kindness. For trying. For never giving up. Their compassion and consistency are what’s allowing me to regain my trust in adults.

Thank you!

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

It’s a bit unfair of me to write this letter because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that even when we go through the same loss, no two widows are the same. So while I’ll share a little about the happenings in my home, realize that it’s based on my experience and not a one-size-fits-all.

It has been said that when children lose a mother, they lose the nurturer in their life, and when children lose a father, they lose the security and stability in their lives.

Our loss was quite sudden, as my husband passed away in an accident. I was left to inform our children, as well as figure out the larger and smaller issues, from where to hold the levayah to which shirts the children should wear for shivah.

I also was left making numerous financial decisions, day in and day out, to protect my family’s future. But even impending foreclosure didn’t scare me as much as the whirlwind of parenting dilemmas I faced in quick succession.

I’d like to share just a few with you.

It began after shivah, when my children asked to stay home for another day or two. I was in a real quandary: If I wanted them to be “normal,” should I give in to this request? On the other hand, I wouldn’t be returning to work for at least another month, so I got where they were coming from ….

This dilemma was the start of many, many more.

“I’m not going to Chagigah! I don’t need them to have it without music because of me. I’m fine staying home.”

To let it go or not?

“Ma, nobody’s mother goes to PTA,” my son pleaded. “Please don’t go—it’s weird.”

Do mothers listen to 12-year-old boys on matters like this?

“Ma, can we please go to a hotel for Pesach? I don’t want to go to Bubby again. It’s crazy to have two almanos leading a Seder together.”

My husband was so against Pesach hotels. My children’s schools would not approve. But I agree it would make Yom Tov far less depressing and complicated. Do I go anyway?

“Ma, my teacher taught the halachos of aveilus today in connection to the Churban. The whole class was looking at me so I ditched the whole period and she gave me detention. You have to call her!”

Do I call or not? Will it label me as “overprotective” or “advocate”?

“Ma, my rebbi said that there must be a man in my life who can show up with me for the farher. I told him Zeidy was niftar and Saba lives in Israel. He told me that he’s sure you’ll find someone.”

Do I call you in tears or do I wait a day to calm down?

“Ma, we need a new lock. I’m telling you, it’s too easy for a robber to get in! I’m telling you they know we don’t have a father …”

Sigh. It’s a weekly conversation. Does he need a therapist or not?

“Ma, I was the only boy without a white shirt today! You didn’t know that whenever boys start a mesechta they make a seudah? And my rebbi took a class picture, and I’m in it looking like a nebach!”

Do I call the rebbi after the fact? The menahel? Who in the world is supposed to teach me all these unwritten cheder rules?

“Ma, the mesivta is going on a trip to XYZ and we’re meeting up with two other yeshivos. Can you ask the rav if I can please, please, please skip Kaddish just once? I don’t want to say it in front of 150 boys I don’t know!”

My bachur has no idea I called the rav four other times today. But I’ll swallow my pride and do it again.

Thankfully, my children are blessed with so many incredible role models who have helped them navigate this tightrope in ways that leave me feeling breathless and blessed.

“Ma, my rebbi is giving me driving lessons during bein hazmanim.”
“My teacher said her husband will be happy to pick up and check all our shatnez before Yom Tov. We should just let him know when would be a good time to come.”

“I told Morah that Wednesday is Tatty’s yahrtzeit and she told me she made a brachos party with all her children in his memory, and they all said a perek of Tehillim for his neshamah.”

“My rebbi offered to come with his boys to help me build the sukkah. And don’t worry, they’ll be happy to take it down on Isru Chag.”

“Ma, my principal told me she went to Tatty’s kever on the day of high school entrance exams and asked that he help me be matzliach.”

“Ma, my rebbi reviewed with me how to kasher the kitchen for Pesach, and he said he’s coming to supervise and help me.”

“I know you may be uncomfortable getting a call, so I’m emailing you to tell you that the school has a fund to cover clothing expenses for a percentage of our students prior to Yom Tov. Please enjoy these gift cards—nobody in the store will know where they come from because they look like every other gift card they sell.”

“Mrs. X, can I take your Yanky to shop for a hat for his bar mitzvah?”

I can’t thank you all enough,

A grateful widow

Dear Rebbi, Dear Morah

My wife passed away three years ago, and it’s been a very painful and complicated reality for all.

I’d like to give you an idea of what my life has been like.

In order for me to make ends meet, I need to work in my office 9-5 p.m. That means I leave home shortly after the last child is off on the bus, but I’m not home until 6 p.m. My high school girls have a rotation where they take a job for the week: cooking supper, cleaning up after supper, homework with little ones, or coming home from school early to be there for the preschool kids until the rest of the crew gets home. And this is with cleaning help to ensure that clothes are washed and ironed, floors are cleaned, and bathrooms are in decent shape. She also often peels vegetables needed for dinner prep. But the brunt of the labor rests on the girls’ shoulders.

My daughters have shared with me that shopping for clothing is a nightmare for them. Each time, they go with an aunt or cousin, but either they feel that they have to say yes quickly to get it over with (because the whole trip is a “favor”) or they take all the time they need but feel guilty throughout.

Another challenge they face is that of school performances and other events that only women attend. They have one of two options: go without anyone in the audience to see them shine OR scroll through the list of friends and family who will exert themselves to attend, even though it means driving two hours to our neighborhood. One of my girls always invites extended family, while another prefers to pretend these events don’t exist.

My high school girls have grown up too fast. They feel responsible for their younger siblings and sometimes, even feel responsible for my health and happiness. If they know I have a migraine, they take on the role of nurses, rolling out a million medicines and vitamins for me to take. And they make sure to tell me, “Tatty, you’d better feel good—we need you!” And they’re only half kidding.

But today, I want to tell you about the little ones. My preschool children don’t have a uniform, but thanks to their doting older sisters, they show up dressed impeccably, matching bows and all. They’ve been blessed with sunny personalities and tend to jump when they’re told and sing when all others do.

But let me tell you what happens every single, bingle night. They snuggle into my bed and tell me about their day, and my chest begins to constrict because I know what comes next. “Tatty, how many more days till Moshiach comes? I really want Mommy to come before my birthday/Yom Tov/Yossi’s bar mitzvah …”

And I have to tell them that I don’t know and only Hashem knows but we can daven.

And we do.

Then they somehow fall asleep and I carry them to bed.

Back in the privacy of my room, I let the tears fall as I beg, “Ribono shel Olam, how much can one man take? I’m a father and I can’t take their pain … How do You carry mine?”

Then I wash my face and hash out high school politics over soup and do Navi homework over meatloaf and deal with “I have NOTHING to wear” over tea.

I try to learn a bit before hitting the sack and make sure to daven vasikin so I can be back in time to wake the kids and get them out happily … and so the cycle goes.

Why do I tell you this? Because I want you to know that even “happy” orphans carry pain. Even “healthy” families like mine need leeway. Even proud fathers need a word of chizuk. I wish you’d call me once in a while to tell me how my daughters are doing. I wish you’d offer to study with my fifth grader before the geography final. I wish you’d call me the week of the yahrtzeit and say, “I know the yahrtzeit is next week. Would your daughter appreciate my acknowledgement or would she prefer I ignore it?” or “I know it’s a challenging week. I’d like you to know that I’m excusing your daughter from homework for this week and I won’t schedule any tests so she doesn’t have to come in on a make-up day and add more stress.”

Teachers, I know your classrooms are overcrowded and you’re grossly underpaid for the endless hours you put in. I know there’s no way I can repay you for all that you do.

But the Avi yesomim can—and He will.

Thank you,

An alman

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