ADL reports a doubling of anti-Semitic assaults from 2017 to 2018; anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City are up 63% compared to 2018. Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City…
It is hard to overlook the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents that culminated last week with the violent and fatal assault in Jersey City. There has been much written on how to help our children understand and manage the carnage and loss of life.
Equally compelling, however, is how do we process with our children this rise in hatred for Jews that sends shivers down the spines of the adults as well? Should we ignore the subject? Play it down? Or do we make it a topic of our conversations and risk detracting from our children’s overall sense of security and safety?
In the following article I will try to address the unique challenges of processing such information with children and propose ways to optimally blend awareness with sufficient sense of personal safety and equanimity
There was a time not so long ago when children could be largely insulated from many of the frightening or complex realities of the adult world. Parents and teachers were the gatekeepers of information that children received. They monitored and controlled that which was found out.
In today’s day and age of technology and electronic communication that is hardly the case. Even in homes and communities that shun the internet, the culture of childhood has changed, and these new trends and sensibilities have made their mark on every segment of our world. Children not only easily find out all information, but, more importantly, feel entitled to know and will learn about events in their surroundings either from the responsible adults or other less-dependable sources such as peers or older but still juvenile siblings. In our work in trauma and loss, we are often begrudgingly conveying that which we wished children didn’t have to know but realize that it is better that they hear it from us or others who know how to impart it accurately and safely.
We therefore essentially have no choice but to make our children aware of this growing scourge of prejudice and hatred that is victimizing, all too often most tragically, members of our community. Besides the news events that they will inevitably hear about, there are many telling and obvious signs of changes in the very framework of our communities including locked synagogues with codes to enter, security personnel strategically stationed at the entrance of our schools and yeshivas, and perhaps, in the not too distant future, guarding our kosher groceries and the like.
The art of parenting is to inform our children or explain what they learn about on their own without undue trepidation. Our counterparts in Israel have done this for years and, unfortunately, we have to now follow suit.
Adding further to the potential fright of such imparted awareness are some of the unique aspects of the anti-Semitic assault. The random nature of such events encroaching on our insulated communities and institutions makes it all the harder to remain composed. One who lives in a war zone or areas more regularly subject to violent incursions may more readily acclimate to the sad and unwanted devastation of assault and violence. However, when a routine visit to the supermarket or synagogue in the perceived cocoon of your familiar neighborhood is shattered by gunfire or even verbal invectives, an element of danger and vigilance is suddenly imposed on these heretofore safe surroundings.
Another exacerbating factor is the purposefulness of these prejudicial attacks that are based on a hatred for the religion and people to which the victim belongs. Research on trauma has demonstrated that an injury or death resulting from the intentional hatred or criminal negligence of the perpetrator heightens levels of trauma and destabilization. Just the awareness that there are elements of our society who harbor such hate for us and our loved ones that they could resort to acts of bloodshed and violence is terrifying and unnerving.
Our goal today and of this article is not to hide the realities of anti-Semitism but to process them with our children in such a fashion that they are aware but sufficiently secure that they can thrive and enjoy their precious childhood years without undue fear and trepidation.
Perspective and Balance
As we regrettably inform and discuss these unfolding developments in our surroundings, we have to simultaneously make sure that our children’s understandings are realistic in terms of the extent and scope of such hate and potential danger. While the rise in anti-Semitism is alarming, we still reside in a country that preserves our freedom of worship and ensures, to the best of their capabilities, our safety and security. Even in the most recent incident in Jersey City, one member of law enforcement tragically gave his life while another two were injured in their efforts to protect us from what could have been far greater harm and destruction. Even the Ecuadorian employee of the kosher supermarket who died in the shooting was most beloved by the children of the school and behaved heroically during the debacle that day. Given our history over the last 2,000 years, this is not something we can afford to take for granted.
While we communicate the reality of an upsurge in hatred for our people, we have to balance that with clear statements that such occurrences are still the exception not the rule, and most people of all faiths and ethnic origin are law-abiding citizens who wouldn’t remotely think of harming us or any other subset of the population. While more caution may be warranted, we don’t want to inculcate a global fear for our fellow residents of this country nor a perception that danger lurks behind every corner every minute of the day.
While the OHEL trauma team was visiting Pittsburgh at the behest of the local yeshiva and only days after the synagogue shooting, I was approached by a middle school rebbe with the following question: One of his students astutely commented that now that a shooting like this has happened, wouldn’t it make it more likely that members of other fringe groups with comparable anti-Semitic belief be prompted to “copycat” such violence or be disinhibited from doing the same? The rebbe believes that this student has a point, and how can he respond without escalating the fear? I told him to tell the student he may be right, but that the police know that as well, and that corresponding to this is a commensurate increase in surveillance, knowledge and expertise in combating such elements.
How to Tell
When imparting potentially scary information to children, the adults have to start by making sure that they, themselves, have personal understanding and framework for such disheartening and horrifying subjects. A child will read the quiver in a voice and confusion of adults who are still, themselves, trying to come to terms with the subject and this will only frighten them further.
Whenever adults discuss shocking happenings or topics they need to be fully cognizant of not only their words but their non-verbal messages as well, including voice tone, body language and the like. These are often more carefully scrutinized by children than the words we use.
The conversation about such matters should be serious but not overbearing or frantic. After telling or discussing these developments, the parents should measure their children’s responses from their comments, questions or facial expressions. If they seem satisfied, the matter can be dropped. Sometimes children seem initially dismissive and come back later with expressions of concern or confusion. That is nothing out of the ordinary nor cause for alarm.
Prior to initiating such conversation, it may be advisable to ascertain what the child knows or has been told. Such awareness may be replete with misconceptions and exaggerations that can be corrected or altered to the depiction of these events that the adults deem most helpful and appropriate.
More expressive and socially engaged children will probably hear about such events before the adults can tell them. In such instances it is important that the parents gauge the children’s reactions and make sure that their responses are tempered and appropriate. Some more quiet or withdrawn children may remain more oblivious but should still be told since this is the new reality of our world. Children should always be encouraged to ask any questions no matter how charged, and never criticized for inquiries that may seem naïve.
It is also imperative that parents appreciate the resilience of their children as well as the child’s capacity to make his or her needs known to others. Even with our minimal help, children will naturally gravitate toward a healthy incorporation of such news or skillfully inquire from us what they need to understand further. Unless there are pre-existing vulnerabilities or psychiatric conditions, our children will naturally acclimate to these new circumstances without lasting harm. As parents and teachers, we also have to trust our innate connection to our children and students and trust our intuitive sense of how to respond or help.
Preschool-aged children (up to 6) are probably too young to understand the presence of prejudice and hatred for specific groups. If they are in the vicinity of an assault, they need to be comforted and assured of safety, but these types of conversations are generally not necessary with this age group.
School-aged children (6-12) can understand the presence of anti-Semitism and may more likely attribute safety to greater strength and power. They are often fascinated by the “facts” of such events, and such curiosity can be addressed to the best of our awareness. Sometimes the details they ask about are irrelevant or generally not known. It is fine to admit not knowing, but ill advised to provide inaccurate information. Because of their inclination to look for factual information, children these ages are most susceptible to rumors and misrepresentations. Any such distortions should be emphatically corrected. And if you choose not to answer their questions, know that they may continue to look elsewhere for information.
From a Historical Vantage Point
From its roots in the biblical accounts of Yaakov and Eisav/Amalek, there is a long-standing tradition and narrative that the conflict between the Jewish people and its enemies and detractors is eternal and will remain persistent until the arrival of Moshiach. An argument could be made that embedding these tragic developments in this context could help cast them in terms that are more meaningful and tolerable. This is not without merit, since a meaningful context does allow for more coping and reduction of trauma as does ancestral connections.
This approach is probably only operable with adolescents who have the necessary broader awareness of our history and miraculous survival despite countless efforts to destroy us. Children this age are also just developing a capacity to engage in abstract thinking and employ concepts and historical perspectives to rise above the immediate pain and horror.
However, here too it seems highly unlikely that this traditional vantage point was meant to engender a global fear and disdain for all others. We have to balance this conversation with an awareness as well of the often good and charitable intentions of all people.
In this past week’s Torah reading (Vayislach), the fateful reunion between Yaakov and Eisav is detailed and described. As the monumental encounter unfolds, the Torah, with its meticulous and multi-layered use of language, describes: “Eisav ran to greet him, he embraced him, and falling on his neck, he kissed him and they wept (Bereishit 33:4). Noting the change in tense, the Netziv (Haamek Davar) comments:
They wept. At that moment, love for Eisav awakened in Yaakov as well. Similarly, whenever Eisav’s descendants genuinely acknowledge Yisrael’s greatness, Yisrael reciprocates with feelings of brotherhood.May Hashem protect us, grant us the wisdom to raise children who are aware of their surroundings in such a fashion that maximizes safety without debilitating fear, and soon reward us with that long-awaited day when all of mankind will cherish the Jewish people and our Creator.
Dr. Norman N. Blumenthal is the director and Zachter Family Chair in Trauma and Crisis Response OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services.