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Talking to Your Kids About Rising Anti-Semitism

January 5, 2020 | by Ilana Kendal

Six tools to respond to our children’s fear.

“Is it okay to say I’m Jewish?” “Should I take my kippah off?” “Is it safe to go to school?”

There was a time that these questions belonged to another era. Such fearful inquiries were the stuff of Holocaust books and my Bubbie’s stories of wartime Europe.

No more. One friend told me her daughter had a meltdown before their family Hanukkah party last week. When she probed, she discovered that this 7-year-old had overheard her parents talking about the Monsey attack and was afraid she’d likewise be assaulted.

A colleague, a child psychologist in the Tri-State area, confided that clients are increasingly coming in afraid and anxious about their safety as Jews. “And the truth is, I can’t disagree with them. At least not 100%. Their fear isn’t unfounded. So what am I supposed to say?”

How do we respond to our kids when we ourselves are feeling afraid? How do we talk about the recent rise in anti-Semitism in a way that supports our kids, building their resilience as Jews?

As a therapist and mother, I wish the answers were simple. Better yet, I wish these weren’t our questions. But here we are, facing the darkness, and it’s our job to lead with some light. Here are 6 tools to guide us in supporting our children.

Open the door to conversation

We do need to talk to our kids about what is happening. We live in a media saturated culture and if we don’t start the conversation, they will hear it somewhere else. By bringing it up ourselves, we send the message that it is okay to talk to us, that as adults we have our finger on the pulse and are a safe place to discuss what’s on their mind.

When I brought up the Monsey attack with my teenage daughter, she already knew about it. “Ya, my camp chat group was talking all about it. Everyone was really upset.” Don’t worry if you are not the first one to get there. Every moment is an opportunity to keep the dialogue going. This does not mean over-probing. Children, particularly teenagers, can smell an agenda. Our job is not to pull every piece of information from them or know each detail of their emotional world. Our job is to send the message: I am interested in you, I am a safe person to talk to, I am here when you are ready.

This can be accomplished with comments such as “I was reading the news, maybe you’ve heard, it’s pretty worrisome” or “this is upsetting what’s going on for the Jews.” We can fill in information according to each child’s age and maturity level. The main thing is that we are being open and creating a space for them to come back to us when they are ready.

Validate, validate, validate

It is tempting to want to fix things for our kids. We may be pulled to reassure them. But this is scary stuff and pretending otherwise will only backfire. The most powerful gift we can offer our children is the experience of being seen and understood. Validating whatever they are thinking and feeling is key for creating a sense of safety. Validation is not the same as agreement. For instance, if your child is telling you he is never leaving the house again, you don’t need to get on board with this decision.

Validating is communicating that, given who he is, where he is coming from and what he is facing, it makes sense to feel this way. Only then can you offer other ways of responding to the situation. Validation is a powerful tool for fostering emotional regulation. When we feel understood we can begin to think critically and open ourselves to new learning and experiences. Using phrases such as “it makes sense that…” or “it’s normal to...” tells our children that we accept them and what they are experiencing.

Encourage questions

As adults, we don’t have all the answers. Our children will tolerate that if we send them the message that we can too. We want to communicate that asking questions is okay. More than that, we also have questions and are willing to engage in a process. By modeling exploration and openness, we give our kids permission to engage in that process together with us. “You may be wondering why this is happening – I am too,” or “I’m trying to figure out what the message is for us,” tells our children that they too can grapple. When we live in the question together with our kids, we have a potent opportunity to teach them about life.

The Hebrew word for “why” is “lamah.” With the change of one vowel, the word becomes “l’mah”, meaning “for what?” From our narrow vantage point on earth, we cannot always understand the Almighty’s “why.” We cannot comprehend everything that happens, but we can seek out the “for what” purpose of each circumstance. This might look like asking our kids, “What do you think we can learn from this?” or modeling “I’m trying to find how God wants us to act now.” The more we encourage questions, the more we set our children up to grow and be resilient no matter what they are facing.

Provide context

As Jews, we have a long history of persecution. It’s important to let our kids know that the violence we see today is an expression of longstanding evil. From the time of Abraham, we have represented change, going against the grain, and this has always been met with resistance. In its essence, part of being Jewish is believing in change, in a better world. By placing current events in this context, we provide important education about our mission as Jews. We can talk about the Biblical struggles, Crusades and pogroms as a legacy of opposition against the values we stand for. We can tell our kids, “Those bad people don’t like the goodness the Jewish people stand for” or, “Jews represent God and good in the world but some people just want to live without rules.”

Placing current events in a broader spiritual context gives meaning to the specific battle we are facing. As we strengthen our children’s identity, we likewise strengthen their capacity to cope.

Foster action

Studies have shown that the more active we are in the face of trauma, the lower the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Action is not fixing, solving or even stopping the pain. It is finding ways to move from passivity to activity. When it comes to fears around safety, this can mean going over a family safety plan; for instance, whom your kid should call in an emergency, what the school lockdown protocol is, and who the security guards at shul are.

But what about more generalized worry and upset? As Jews we are all connected. Each action we take has a ripple effect. My daughter’s camp chat not only informed her of the Monsey attack; they were also saying psalms together. It’s our natural instinct to want to do something, and these young women were finding a way.

We can pray together with our children or increase our acts of kindness in the face of evil. One friend wrote letters to the Monsey victims’ families with her kids, another ran a ‘kindness warriors’ program where they put together packages for the homeless. Showing our children that there are actions we can take and that we are not powerless is an important psychological buffer. Not only that, by empowering our children to contribute in even the smallest of ways, we show them that they matter and can make a difference.

Find role models

As we know, this is not the first time in Jewish history we have faced violence and anti-Semitism. This means that generations before have contended with this darkness and evil. They not only survived, they thrived. Talking about how others have coped with fear and adversity can provide a model for us and our children to move forward.

When my daughter told me that she was praying with her friends, I was reminded of my Bubbie, a Holocaust survivor. “You know what Bubbie Jean would do when she was scared walking at night?” I asked. “She would repeat ‘Shema Yisrael’ over and over again. She told me she felt God was protecting her.” It wasn’t that she was fearless; it was that she found courage through her faith. Looking around for our personal role models or people in history who have contended with anti-Semitism shows our children the resilience of the Jewish spirit and places all of us in a larger context. We become not only individuals grappling with fear, but warriors in a noble spiritual battle. Empowering our children to become part of this legacy can transform their experience and give them the strength to tackle their fears.

Our kids are living in a world steeped in darkness. If, together with them, we can grow through this challenge, we can all take part in increasing the light. I pray that we and our children need not fear. Until then, let us all find the courage to respond as Jews.

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