For Montclair’s Jewish teenagers, news of an attack on Temple Ner Tamid came from social media. And as they began to learn more details about the Molotov cocktail thrown at the synagogue on Jan. 29, a range of emotions swept over them – shock, sadness and numbness.

But for leaders of Montclair High School’s Jewish Student Union, their emotions quickly turned to action as they worked to support their classmates in processing the antisemitic assault, with the help of their teachers. 

Shayna Rudoren, a sophomore and JSU social media outreach coordinator, was on her way to Temple Ner Tamid the morning of the attack when her family received the news. But the attack did not scare her, she said. Ner Tamid has implemented several security changes in the past few years, and Rudoren felt confident that the temple was safe, she said. 

But she quickly realized that others felt differently. 

“It's not necessarily about whether I felt scared,” she said. “It's kind of about being part of helping other people who did feel like that's valid and feel like things are happening to make sure that their fear is heard and dealt with.”

Natasha Halbfinger, senior and JSU co-president, said she was not expecting a synagogue attack in the Montclair area. 

“I was kind of just in shock a little bit, and I didn't do any research on what had happened,” said Halbfinger, who saw the news on Snapchat. “It's one thing to know that these things are happening all over the place and another for it to happen in your backyard.”

After the initial shock, Halbfinger, a member of Shomrei Emunah, said she felt the numbness creeping in.

“I think that while I don't want to be desensitized, I think it's a good thing that I am,” she said. “Maybe that's something that comes with time or maturity or whatever, maybe that's just because we've seen so much of this at such a young age.”

Jonah Khersonsky, a junior and the JSU event director, had a combination of feelings about the attack as well, he said. 

“I obviously reacted to it in some way, but because we're so desensitized to it, I was like, well, OK, it's another hate crime,” he said. “Unfortunately we see them a lot now.”

But the Ner Tamid attack affected Khersonsky, also a Shomrei Emunah member, more than antisemitic attacks of the past few years. 

“You can be desensitized to it, but once it happens in your backyard, there's no escaping it, and it just really hit me like a wave, like wow, people I know are affected by this,” he said.

When Khersonsky was in middle school, he was struck by a similar wave. 

In October 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding six others during a Shabbat service. While none of Khersonsky’s family members attended Tree of Life, several of his family’s friends did. He was heading home from a friend’s bar mitzvah when he heard the news. 

“I just freaked out, and in sort of the same way, it just hit me like a wave,” he said. “Yes, this can happen in other places and not connected to me directly. But it happened, and I know people who were affected by it, and it’s just horrible.”

From swastikas carved into seats, to a report of a student with a weapon, a bomb threat, and the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a “tumultuous four years” for seniors, said Daniela Dreifach, senior and JSU co-president. Dreifach is a member of Temple Sholom of West Essex. 

“There's a lot of desensitization at this point,” Dreifach said. “It's been a long run with this stuff.”

After the attack, the JSU leaders posted a personal statement to the club’s Instagram account, condemning the attack and sharing articles with additional information, one from Rudoren’s mother, Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of The Forward. 

Once the statement was up, students began to share the post, instead of resharing posts by local politicians or news outlets, Shayna Rudoren said. 

“It just felt so great, especially as a member of Ner Tamid, to see people immediately reposting our posts instead of the news that they found,” she said. 

The JSU leaders had been planning a club meeting Feb. 2 to celebrate Tu BiShvat, a holiday marking the new year for trees, but they decided to change plans. They would discuss the attack and how students were feeling.

The club normally meets twice a month, offering up free bagels to members, but had not yet met in 2023 due to midterm exams. The Feb. 2 meeting drew about 40 students, more than usual, the club leaders said. 

“I do think it was more than the bagels,” Khersonsky said. “I think a lot of people just felt like now was a good time to come together as a community.”

The club leaders tried to create a space for discussion during the meeting, using a talking stick to show the students “that they have a place where they can come and feel comfortable and feel welcome,” Halbfinger said.

But the students, mostly freshmen, were hesitant to open up and share their feelings about the attack, she said. 

Dreifach added, “A lot of people were not really connected to it, not really fully processing, really just desensitized.”  

The club leaders were not alone in their efforts to support Montclair High School’s Jewish students. High school teachers across disciplines stepped up to make themselves available to students and to stand in solidarity with Montclair’s Jewish community, the JSU leaders said. 

Several of Khersonsky’s teachers brought up the attack, and students were able to unpack how they were feeling, he said. 

“We’re in an environment where yes, these things can happen and you're not immune from hate,” he said. “But when it does happen, we are supported not only by Jews, but by non-Jews.”

Dreifach also noticed the support from teachers, with some offering to speak with students after class or via email. 

“The school is actually doing a much better job than they have in the past of actually addressing these things,” she said. 

She and the other club leaders think they know why the support has increased – the district's implementation of restorative justice. 

Restorative Justice Montclair has been working in Montclair schools since 2018. The program provides “integrated methods to address conflict through reflection, reconciliation and accountability where harm has occurred,” according to the district website. 

Staff and students are trained on how to run restorative justice circles, in which participants sit in a circle and have an open dialogue on a given topic. 

One of Rudoren’s teachers does a circle-style check-in each Friday with students, a practice that has increased trust in the classroom, Rudoren said. 

After the attack, schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds announced there would be additional guidance counselors available for students. But the JSU leaders say they don’t know of any students who sought out that resource, instead turning to teachers and friends they felt close to.

The JSU meeting also provided students with a space to speak their minds, Halbfinger said.

“I think that it's really great that there is something in existence for the Jewish kids,” she said. “We all share something, and it's a pretty strong something these days.”

While the club leaders would love to be able to focus on celebrating the trees on Tu BiShvat and feasting on Sukkot, they’ve realized that one of their main jobs is to talk about events like the attack on Ner Tamid, Rudoren said.

“Prioritizing helping others through their feelings and sharing good information about Judaism and educating on antisemitism has to be our goal, because not enough people are making it theirs,” she said.