Just be present
Encountering — and supporting — scared children: What’s a Jewish educator to do?
As Jewish educators, we can be there for our youth as they grapple with the uncertainty of this complex world. Often this entails being there for their families as well. My best advice to Jewish educators who are encountering scared children, no matter what the age, is to first listen and then offer answers only as best you can.
Terrorism is as much about the fear that it instills in an entire population as it is about any specific incident itself. It is appropriate to hold the emotions of gratitude and relief that no innocent lives were lost in Colleyville, while also being fearful and sad knowing that this gunman will continue to impact many lives.
In the next few days and weeks, the Jewish world will continue to proclaim meaningful and significant slogans including, “don’t let the terrorists win,” “we will return even stronger than before” and “we must all persist in fighting the oldest hatred in the world.” But along with these sentiments, demonstrating perseverance and strength in the face of adversity, we must also acknowledge and speak about our fear — especially as it affects our children and youth.
A toddler notices parents glued to their TVs and phones. A child notices an armed guard at their school. A teenager understands that the attack in Colleyville could have been — or could next be — their community. In fact, the Jewish community cultivates and encourages the feeling of empathy elicited with, or perhaps by, these instances of noticing and understanding. We implore our children to imagine what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes, while instilling the value kol yisrael areivim ze la zeh, that all Jews are responsible for one another.
As Jewish educators, we can be there for our youth as they grapple with the uncertainty of this complex world. Often this entails being there for their families as well. My best advice to Jewish educators who are encountering scared children, no matter what the age, is to first listen and then offer answers only as best you can. Acknowledge and accept their fear — and your own if that is authentic. You also can say, “I don’t know either” and “I can’t explain.” These meaningful interactions, premised on simply being there, are the first stage of this learning journey. Gradually, strive to empower your youth to respond to these events on their terms. While terrorism takes away our agency, our response must be to control what we can.
“Is it ever okay to tell a child that if they are fearful that it isn’t the right time for them to enter a synagogue?” This is a question that I recently posed on a webinar to psychologist Dr. Betsy Stone and Rabbi Elizabeth Zeller. Their responses could be categorized as a “begrudging yes” and a possible “maybe.” If we truly suggest that Jewish education, in fact all education, should prioritize our children’s well-being, then it also is true that a human being’s basic need for safety and well-being must be paramount. I write this with a tear in my eye, yet, I believe that sometimes, it is right to tell a child that they do not have to go to synagogue or elsewhere if they are scared. If we teach our children empathy and understanding, we too must embody those feelings in our own words and decisions.
This hurt we now experience is compounded by two years of pandemic uncertainty, of social distancing and by a multitude of other vitriolic antisemitic attacks. Our children have suffered greatly. Their well-being is just as important as Jewish strength and solidarity.
As a proud Jew it pains me to suggest that our children might be scared to enter Jewish communal spaces. I was hurt when my parents first advised me not to wear Hebrew writing on my t-shirt when traveling in Europe. It pains me when I watch someone tuck their Star of David necklace under their shirt or put on a baseball cap to cover one’s kippah. But for young people today, these dilemmas are very real. For some people, perhaps Colleyville was the wakeup call that antisemitism is also real. And for some people antisemitism is considered ubiquitous, for others it is random — and its unpredictable nature makes it even scarier.
As we always say, for educators to be their best selves they must first take care of themselves. Find time and space to pause, reflect and process what has occurred and how it influences your own journeys as Jewish educators.
May we all know better days.
David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project.