Peering over my shoulder, my son asked, "Mom, what is that?" I blinked stupidly.
I had been absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook on my laptop when a startling photograph took my breath away. The image was of Seth Paine Elementary in Lake Zurich, a school less than 20 miles away, with a giant swastika scrawled across the building in white spray paint.
I didn't know how to answer, and it wasn't the first time I had been stumped by a small child's big question. Sweet little voices often ask the most mind-blowing queries, demonstrating the innocence of youth and the inadequacies of adulthood. With that hateful image flickering on the computer screen before us, I realized I had to learn how to talk about antisemitism with my children. It felt like a call I could not ignore, given this incident so close to my home and the recent rise of acts of hate against Jews in New York and elsewhere. Here's some of what I learned:
"Children are reassured when parents lead and protect them through the daily structure of their life," said Lynn Shyman, LCSW, Director of Adult, Child, and Family Services at JCFS Chicago. "When daily news brings us details of school shootings, antisemitic vandalism, or violence in Israel, we struggle to find age-appropriate explanations or words of comfort."
"Kids need brief, factual, honest information," she said.
Parents should be mindful of their children's age, and let them lead the conversation, making room for kids to ask questions and share what they may already know. "You also want to let them know that, when something negative in the Jewish community happens, it's upsetting. Validate their feelings."
Parents should remember that children "pick up on our worry and our anger, so we want to put that into some sort of context," according to Kathy Ham, LCSW, Director of the Virginia Frank Child Development Center and Glick Early Childhood Programs for JCFS Chicago. Parents may want to explain their own feelings about incidents of antisemitism, she said, in a simple way to reassure children and help them to verbalize their own thoughts and emotions. "The worst thing is when you're afraid or angry, and you're alone with it. We don't want children to be alone with these feelings," Ham said.
While these conversations may be difficult, they are necessary for both parents and children. Rabbi Wendi Geffen, a parent of two and Senior Rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, points out that it is essential to show children that hatred does not make sense and that it is not okay.
"If we choose only to talk about hate when it comes to other groups and not our own, we short the truth," Geffen said.
"We need to have empathy for everyone who suffers at the hands of those who hate," she said. "It's the reason we have an obligation to help others who are discriminated against and also help ourselves because we know what it feels like to be 'othered.' We are the people who have this unique awareness and sensitivity."
By informing our children, we empower them. As parents, we need to explain antisemitism in terms our kids can understand, but also help them form their own Jewish identity in the face of hate. To teach our children how to understand and respond to antisemitism, we must both encourage them to ask hard questions and take pride in who they are.
Leslie Hill Hirschfeld is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.