I was in the midst of my first draft of an article on anti-Semitism when I got the call.
Under normal circumstances when the school phone number flashes across my screen, I catch myself mentally flipping through probable scenarios: Did she forget her lunch? Did he forget his homework? Is someone sick?
But this time was different. The principal called me from her cellphone. I imagined the worst (could they be in the hospital?!) and answered the call with, “Is everything OK?”
“Well, yes and no,” she said, and went on to explain that another student had called my 13-year-old daughter a “rich, spoiled Jew.”
Socioeconomics aside (the offending student knows nothing about us), I was shocked that a young teenager would throw in “Jew” so freely and vocally. After my daughter’s friends shared the day’s events with their parents, and we discussed it with a few close friends, many opinions poured in. I know these were meant to comfort and support us. Some felt we were naive to be shocked, as anti-Semitism is on the rise. Others opined that it never quite went away, always lurking just beneath the surface. But when hate hits so close home in the form of three words, it’s hard to employ philosophy and reason. How could a child conjure this hideous stereotype and spew such venom? Children aren’t born hating…
My husband and I have not shielded our teens from world news. They are active participants in our discussions about recent events in Belgium, France, and Denmark, to name a few. My husband shared with them that more than 30 years ago, he walked into the library of his suburban New Jersey high school to find a student carving a swastika into a cubby. On another occasion, his school’s PTA put up a small Hanukkah banner alongside all the Christmas decorations, and it was torn down within minutes. During my freshman year in college, a student took out an ad in the school paper, announcing that he looked forward to a quiet Yom Kippur weekend, when most Jews would be off-campus. But these incidents seem so remote all these years later. Has nothing changed?
And what do we tell our children? I cannot control the home environment of others, and I certainly don’t wish to taint my teen’s view of the world. Yes, there’s hate out there, but there is also a lot of good–and that is what we chose to focus on.
Thankfully, the school administration (in a district near Pittsburgh where Jews are a minority) did all the right things: They supported and comforted my daughter, followed the district’s protocol for addressing hate speech, notified all appropriate parties, and took disciplinary action against the offender. While procedurally everything went smoothly, emotionally we were exhausted, hurt, and frankly, shell-shocked.
I picked my daughter up before dismissal as requested by the principal, and prepared for an emotional and difficult Friday evening. Instead, we were overwhelmed by the kindness and warmth that our daughter’s friends displayed by texting, calling, visiting, and supporting her in the aftermath of this vile incident.
“She could have called me anything else, and it wouldn’t have hurt me the same way,” my daughter told me. “But she had to add in ‘Jew.’”
I know. Boy, do I know…
The shock slowly wore off, as time is an effective healer. My daughter realized that not only was the school’s response appropriate, her friends acted with pure grace and decency. We continued to focus on the positive aspects of this unfortunate incident when addressing the teachable moment. We cannot shield our kids from hateful speech and behavior, but we can teach them to be kind and true to themselves, to treat others with the same respect they deserve, and to surround themselves with like-minded friends. The alternative seems unimaginable.