Water Park Tragedy Op-ed from Project Chai


Nearly a half century ago when I was a talmid of HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l, the yeshiva summer camp was shaken when one of the young men learning with us nearly drowned in the camp lake while boating. This took place during the Nine Days, and after that incident, Rav Feinstein enacted what has generally become the accepted standard of refraining from all water-based activities as of Rosh Chodesh Av.

Yesterday, while still in advance of Rosh Chodesh, our Torah world was stunned by the tragic and heartbreaking word that a young camper perished at a water park. This was a shock and a trauma to so many, many of us. There were other youngsters present, many of whom witnessed the horrible accident, and many, many more who were aware that something was happening, in that they were detained on buses for hours before leaving the site. Of course, far more people, adults and children, are now learning of this drowning, and are reacting. Project Chai of Chai Lifeline has been providing phone call-in conference consultations, individual hot-line consults, calls from camp directors, rabbanim and parents, and will continue to be available via our 24 hour staffed line at 855-3-CRISIS.

Many parents, camp staff and educators have been turning to Project Chai with questions and seeking guidance. What should children be told? What must adults be aware of? What will happen in the summer camps when it comes to continued activities?

The first rule for adults who will be addressing campers, students, and their own children is: do more listening than talking. When the shock of frightening events is absorbed by the brain, the body and the heart, that is, in our thoughts, our sensations, and our feelings, there is a chaos within because the rush of information is too vast for one to organize and to try making sense of. This is why we want to create a gentle atmosphere where each child can begin identifying what they are going through, and expressing those thoughts, sensations and feelings. Your task is to listen supportively, compassionately, and to validate each one. This means that you do not try to talk them out of their personal reaction, you do not try to change the way they feel, and you do not judge or question their reaction. You listen, you show that you hear and that you understand, and you offer the validating perspective that what they are experiencing is part of the common, yet distressing, reactions which follow a frightening, sad event. Let them talk, give that validation and support, and assist them in being aware of what rushes through their mind, what erupts in the emotions and moods, what is sensed and felt physically.

It is common for children to be anxious, fearful, nervous and uneasy about “getting back in the water.” It is common for them to express sadness, to be withdrawn, to be quiet, or ironically, to become hyperanimated, distracted and distracting. It is common to find children having trouble sleeping, getting to bed, eating, and they may express nausea, and seek to avoid even familiar activities. Respect this. Accept this, and never tease or try to cajole a child from feeling different than they tell you that they feel. But, give them encouragement that their normal reactions, even when they might seem not so normal to the child, are temporary and that the mood, or the somberness, or the obsessive worry, or the fear, or the sadness, will begin to lift each day.

Encourage children to maintain their Routine, their Schedule, and the Structure of their lives. Bed time, wake time, meal time, study time, tefila time, fun time, are all important to return to, and are part of the adaptive healing which is so necessary following trauma and crisis.

Encourage them to discourage rumors and to refrain from repeating gossip about what happened. If they hear something that they do not know to be true, they should ask you or another trusted adult, rather than just repeating it to others. No one should offer an interpretation as to why this happened to this child, or family.

Recognize that in addition to the mind, the heart and the body is the neshama. The soul is the core of much of our resilience, and it is also the resource for healing and coping. Employ it. Speak about it. Continue to address with your child the role of tefila, of tehilim, of their sedarim. They may feel weaker in those areas during times of distress, or they may have a surge of intensity, wanting to attain sudden spiritual heights by increasing their prayer and learning time. Structure that with moderation, helping them pace themselves. If they pose to you deep spiritual questions, including “why?”, on the one hand, educate them that right now we do not have answers to the why questions, but also educate them that their musings and religious worries are acceptable and if you yourself cannot address them in that dimension, get them to a trusted Torah personality who will and who can.

The question is being raised as to whether camps should cancel water activities immediately. Our recommendation is to pose this to your posek or daas Torah. Certainly if there are family members and relatives of the niftar at your camp or day camp, you must be sensitive to their feelings at this time. From a general perspective in the aftermath of trauma, we would tend to encourage that a camp maintain its normal schedule. By abjectly cancelling an event now, we do run the possibility of misconception, that some children will conclude that a water park is a makom sakana, or a bad place to be avoided permanently. That is not the message which a camp would wish to broadcast. Generally, avoidance of a feared environment fosters more and enduring fears. It might be better to postpone rather than to cancel such an activity. However, if a camp opts to maintain its routine and to have a water activity this week, first consider prepping the campers through age-appropriate discussions about what happened, how they are dealing with it, and those individual campers who want to refrain should not be teased or forced but rather should be allowed to stay with a counselor who will divert them to another activity while the camp at large maintains its routine. If a large contingent of campers express a desire to hold off on the water parks out of sensitivity to what has occurred, this too should be respected. Use your judgement, your sensitivity, and seek a psak from those to whom you turn for policy. But consider that avoidance out of fear is not ideal. It is important to clarify to campers that the tragedy was an unusual accident, and was not indicative of the safety of the venue.

When will this end? Each summer, we face frightening events, and at times, deal with painful tragedy. This is a painful tragedy without a doubt. Be tender, be a supportive listener, be a role model for hashkafa and for derech HaTorah, derech HaShem. May the family find, in its time, nechama, somehow. May the yagon v’anacha soon cease. Yeshuos v’nechamos.

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the Director of Interventions & Community Education at Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline.

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  1. Maybe its a good idea to refrain from water activities the whole 3 weeks or at least to be extra careful with all the counselors and jc’s to watch the pool.