Where to begin

Making this a teachable moment even for our youngest community members

It’s hard to believe that it was one month ago today when we woke up to news of the attacks on Israel by Hamas. I found myself glued to these reports in disbelief; it was as if a nightmare was unfolding before my eyes. 

As a director at a Jewish preschool, my thoughts immediately turned to my staff, many of whom have family living in Israel. I began frantically texting, calling and reaching out, hoping to receive word that their loved ones were accounted for and safe. After every text I sent, it felt like an eternity waiting for a response. 

My own children, now teenagers, witnessed my response to the news. They observed my distress, concern, sadness and even fear on that fateful Saturday and in the days that followed; and they also saw me jump into action, checking on friends and offering my support. 

I am well aware, as a parent, an educator and a preschool director, that children learn by example and they are always watching us. We are showing them with our actions and words how we respond to stressful situations.

On Monday, Oct. 9, I welcomed my staff back to work with hugs and space to share whatever was on their minds. In spite of the reports from Israel, we had a job to do, and our focus would now turn to our students. 

There are plenty of resources on the internet about how to talk to children about the conflict in Israel, but these resources mainly focus on children from elementary through high school-age kids. As a Jewish preschool teaching a Jewish curriculum to Jewish children, we know we can’t ignore the proverbial elephant in the room — but where to begin? 

We don’t talk about Hamas, or the war, or the extent of the violence that is going on in Israel and in Gaza. Instead, we talk about Israel. We share stories and pictures. We play “Hatikvah.” We sing “Am Yisrael Chai.” Through our actions and our words, we rise above. We lift each other up in song and in prayer.

In this unprecedented moment in their lives and ours, there are meaningful, age-appropriate lessons we can impart:

Jewish pride: We can remind our preschoolers that the Jewish people have a rich history steeped in tradition and defined by stories of perseverance, survival and overcoming adversity. 

Connection to Israel: We teach our students about Israeli culture: its geography, foods, and traditions. We also compare and contrast life in Israel versus life in the United States.

The Israeli flag: The colors blue and white and the distinctive elements of the flag — the magen David, flanked by two blue stripes — are easy to distinguish among flags from other countries. In our classrooms, we hang Israeli flags alongside the flag of the United States.

Friends helping friends: Israel is an important part of our Jewish heritage. We bring in tzedakah to donate to our friends in Israel because we, as Jews, want to help our friends.

Connection to the global Jewish community: We celebrate Shabbat. We model for our littlest learners this Jewish ritual that comes every Friday night, no matter what is going on in the world. We light candles and say blessings. We add a special prayer for Israel. We remind the children that Shabbat connects us to Jewish people all over the world. We are not alone. 

The children are watching us, observing our actions and listening to our words. If we rise up, they will too. 

Jen Schiffer is the director of The Community Synagogue L’Dor V’Dor Early Childhood Center in Port Washington, N.Y. She has worked in the field of Jewish early childhood education for almost 15 years, teaching in Queens and Long Island and serving on the board of the Jewish Early Childhood Association (JECA).