Oct 18, 2023 Lesley Litman

By Lesley Litman

These are frightening times. We watch the news with a sense of horror, helplessness, and fear. As educators and as parents, the current crisis evokes an additional fear: How can we support our children, respond to their questions in ways that comfort them or, at the very least, provide a sense of safety and security? My unvarnished, raw fear is that I will somehow mess up. What if I give the wrong answer? What if I hurt the child or individual in front of me?

One way I hoped to gain some semblance (imagined as it may be) of control, was to begin to gather the questions we were fielding. I turned to my esteemed Jewish educational leader colleagues at institutions across North America for help. As we shared our questions, we noticed that they seemed to fall into four categories. Each category was substantially different in the types of responses required. Being able to name the type of question being asked might enable us to respond more effectively.

One caveat before moving forward: The first and most important act in any encounter is to listen closely. What appears to be one type of question, upon further probing, might turn out to be a different one. Paraphrasing what you are hearing or asking for clarification are two of the ways to ascertain the essence of the question.

We also understand that attempts at categorization can be somewhat artificial in nature and some questions straddle more than one category. Yet, the process of categorization may help us to characterize the type of response that might be most helpful and to whom we can turn for assistance.

The four categories of questions we identified are: safety and security; existential; the world around me; and content.

  1. Safety and Security QuestionsThese questions include concerns about the level of security at the synagogue, school, JCC, or other Jewish events. The leadership of the organization or sponsors of the event will want to have clear and demonstrable answers to these questions. While no place is 100% safe, we can reassure families, children, and staff that we have done everything in our power to secure the surroundings (with specifics, if possible). Younger children, in particular, are seeking this reassurance.
  2. Existential QuestionsThese are the “why” questions. These questions have to do with good and evil, love and hate, and identity, to name a few. Some questions from children (even very young children) in this category include: Why do people hate the Jews? Is this the start of WWIII? Will Israel still exist after this? From parents: How can I help my child love being Jewish when it hurts right now? How do I navigate the deaths of innocent Israelis by Hamas and innocent Palestinians by Israel? These are probably some of the hardest questions we encounter.There is no panacea in responding to these questions. Since different communities might respond to these questions in different ways, I suggest bringing these questions to the full professional team of your congregation or organization to consider and agree upon a response. The bottom line here is that, for the most part, we don’t have good answers to these types of questions except to make space for them and to open up a conversation about what the children or parents are thinking.
  3. The World Around MeThis group of questions is focused on the world outside of our immediate community, congregation, or school. They include, My kid is being bullied at (secular) school about this. What do I do?; Should my child wear identifying school shirts on an upcoming field trip?; What should I tell my teen to tell people who are saying appalling things about Israel and Jews?First, clarify if these questions are emerging from a sense of threat to personal safety. If the response is yes, the child should be removed from any dangerous situation. Otherwise, these questions align closely with questions we receive relating to antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Facing History and Ourselves provide helpful guidance. The ADL, for example, published this article for classroom teachers in secular schools on supporting Jewish students. Parents might want to share this with teachers and other educators.
  4. ContentThese questions seek to provide information about Israel and the current moment. What do children need to know to understand what is happening in Israel? What information is the right information? From a 5th grade teacher, how do I answer students’ requests for information about what’s happening? Should we talk about the war with younger children?These are both straightforward and complex questions. What to teach? How much to teach in terms of history, politics, geography, current events and more? Children, even young children, as we learned from Dr. Sivan Zakai’s research, know more than we might realize. They hear adults talking, they speak with one another and often overhear the television or radio. Children may also have differing levels of knowledge and engagement with Israel. For this last reason, asking children to share what they know with the whole class might lead to conversations that make other children feel unsafe or uncomfortable (for example, some children may know of people who are hurt, dead or missing). Parent/child learning programs might be helpful here.

    Regarding older children, many resources are available in which learners can explore information. The iCenter, IsraelLink, and the Center for Israel Education have a plethora of up-to-date well-vetted resources, many in curricular form for ready use. Listen carefully to the questions the children are asking and seek out materials that focus specifically on the questions at hand. Don’t overdo the amount of information. This means that you may not be able to answer a question on the spot. Instead, tell the children you will look into their questions and come with more information the next time you meet.

Our families, children, and staff are bringing their questions and worries to us. This while we have our own questions and worries. Our job is not to have a ready answer to all questions. Rather, it is to listen carefully to the essence of the question, determine in which of the four categories outlined here (or additional categories) it falls and approach your response accordingly. Reach out to your clergy and other staff partners, to colleagues, and to the organizations mentioned here. You are not alone.

May you go from strength to strength. Michayil el Chayil מֵחַיִל אֶל־חָיִל.

Lesley Litman, Ed.D. is a Senior Consultant to The iCenter and Director of the Executive MA program in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR’s School of Education.