Are We Causing Our Children to Fear Israel?

By Rabbi Aaron Starr

In celebration of our fifteenth wedding anniversary this past June, and in recognition of my upcoming “special” birthday, last spring my wife Rebecca decided that we should take a family trip to Israel during the 2016 December Break.

When we informed our children of our decision to travel to Israel, Caleb – age 9 and a student at Hillel Day School – responded with tremendous fear: “Why are you taking us to a war zone?! I don’t want to die!” His brother, Ayal – age 6 and also a student at Hillel – caught on to his brother’s feelings of terror. For months they dreaded the trip and every time we brought it up to try to build excitement and to assuage their concerns, we were immediately rebuffed. For Caleb and Ayal, and, I would imagine, for many children, Israel is perceived as among the most dangerous places on earth.

I wonder: in trying to teach our children to love, to protect and to defend Israel, are we also teaching them to fear Israel?

I am guilty. Every Shabbat morning at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we offer a prayer for the State of Israel. And each week I introduce that prayer by referencing the most recent terrorist attack, the threats of a nuclear Iran, the latest slight by the United Nations and other countries, the forest fires that occurred, or other existential threats to the State of Israel. In trying to deepen our congregation’s ahavat Tzion (love of Israel) and in desiring our community to understand the need for us to further support Israel through prayers and other means, I now realize that my nine-year-old hears each week only of the threats toward Israel.

When our Day Schools and synagogue supplementary schools teach Israel we offer similar messaging. We plant trees on Tu B’Shvat to “make the desert bloom.” We send tzedakah to Israel to help our poor brothers and sisters in the Promised Land. We look at Israeli geography to understand the implications of the recent fires. We counted down the days until Gilad Shalit was freed. We proudly show our children pictures of young adults in camouflage – doing what?! – preparing for battle. Of course, these are all requisite lessons to create an educated Jewish community, but they come at a price.

Moreover, as if it were not hard enough to teach our American-born, secularized Jewish children to love Israel, the nefarious efforts of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement force us on the defensive. We are regularly trying to teach our children how to defend Israel against false or misleading accusations by, frankly, exposing them to those very same false and misleading accusations. Even in the best of situations, the BDS movement’s efforts hold the potential to erode our children’s love for Israel and to exacerbate their fears.

Finally, we confront the reality that Israel is not a Jewish Disney fantasy. The State of Israel is a country governed by fallible human beings who can and do make mistakes – sometimes even grievous mistakes. We are obligated to help our children understand this reality, and we must help them as well to realize that we can still love that which is imperfect. Nevertheless, Israel’s realities also hold the potential to erode our children’s love and to exacerbate their fears.

We love the State of Israel. Despite our best of intentions, however, I worry that in our passionate rush to teach about Israel, we are dooming our children to fear it.

The best antidote to our children’s fears is, I believe, to visit Israel: whether through family vacations, synagogue missions, Day School trips, Birthright, or the Teen Mission to Israel. There is nothing that alleviates a child’s fears about our homeland more successfully than to walk the streets of Jerusalem; to swim in the Dead Sea; to ride a camel; to eat kosher falafel or shawarma; to consume sufganiyot each day of Chanukah; to hear a cab driver or store clerk wish them on Friday afternoons Shabbat shalom; or to try to teach the rules of American football to an Israeli child, as mine did, in Hebrew (thank you Hillel Day School). In this way, our children’s first-hand experience with and memories of Israel can supersede any theoretical fears that they might have.

But we can also inspire a love for Israel devoid of fear by being careful with the stories we share and the songs we sing. I, for one, also will begin reconsidering how I express my own personal ahavat Tzion from the bimah and in the home. In addition, I encourage other clergy members, educators, community leaders, and those whose “heart is in the east” to be mindful of the side-effects of teaching our kids to defend and to protect Israel. In our well-intentioned desire to share our love of Israel with our children, we must realize that we might be building fear as well. Therefore, for Israel’s sake and for our sake, for the sake of our children and for the future of the Jewish people, let us strive more mindfully to ensure that “love” is the emotion we most strongly inculcate our children – not fear.

On our last Shabbat in Jerusalem, we visited the Kotel. I pulled my boys close and tearfully whispered to them: “I pray that you will always remember this moment when you visited the Western Wall with your Eema and your Abba and that one day you will love Israel as much or even more than we do.” Later that evening as we packed up our bags to travel from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion airport, we did not see our six-year-old, Ayal. Turns out, he was in his bedroom crying because he did not want to leave … home. And, after the trip, when I asked my nine-year-old Caleb who feared for his life in visiting the Promised Land, “What do you think of Israel?” He responded, “I would go back again.”

It’s a start.

Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan.