“What is that sound?” my son asks, alarmed, when a siren interupts our regular call with his grandmother in Israel.
“It’s a sound that tells safta to go somewhere safe, it keeps her safe,” I explained. It seemed like the best thing to say — the truth, an honest answer to his question, sanitized of the context. And then I braced for more questions. They didn’t come. He is five. Once he heard that everything was OK, that his loved one was taken care of, he was satisfied.
As an Israeli immigrant to America, my identity has always felt really complicated to parse. I’ve already thought, a lot, about how I will talk to my kids about Israel in the future, how I’ll try to be honest and fact-based and also explain my own biases. Still, I’m glad I don’t have to have the conversation with them right now. My kids are too young, too intimately connected to Israel by their loved ones, for me to just drop the subject on them if they don’t ask me any questions. At 5 and 2, they’re also too young to be exposed to it on TV or at school. The rising antisemitism in the world has also seemed to have very little effect on our daily lives.
That isn’t true, however, for so many Jewish parents across the country.
A lot of our children have difficult questions about the current situation in Israel. And because of the internet and social media, a lot of parents don’t have the choice to tell them about it, either.
We asked Jewish parents about how they are talking about the war in Israel and its impact on Jewish life in the diaspora, but also about how are talking about solidarity with the many Palestinian victims of this war, and talking about war in general. Their responses were both heart-warming and illuminating. Here’s what they had to say:
Letting kids lead the conversation
With parents of older kids, it seems that most of them have let their kids initiate and lead the conversation.
“With my 10-year-old, he watches the news with me, and I share primary news that I read. I don’t give graphic accounts, and I don’t show pictures, but I am not shielding him from reports,” a parent of four from Woodland, CA, told us. “My 6-year-old has much less interest. I just tell her to look out for adults she does not know, and stay close to adults that she trusts.”
That same parent said that their kids have told them that the situation — the attacks and Israel’s response to them — “doesn’t make sense.”
“I validate that. It does seem like an impossible setup. So much [of what is] going on does not make rational sense and is the result of bad decisions and hatred that should never have happened.” They said the conversations offer a good vehicle for talking about “the dangers of losing one another’s humanity.”
Minda, a parent of two from Seattle, has a 16 and 13 year old. “Their schoolmates are talking about it,” she says, so she feels like she must, too. “We discuss nuance, history, what ‘genocide,’ ‘apartheid,’ and ‘colonizer’ mean. We talk about the history of the land. And I say constantly: It’s not Israel versus Palestine. It’s Israelis, Palestinians, and all of us versus extremism and disinformation.”
“The indignant, overly confident rage of some of their peers is tough to confront,” Minda says. She asks her kids to remind their peers that “everyone deserves peace and safety. If it feels safe to, they can add that their people are diverse and also indigenous to the land, not ‘white colonizers,’ which is the argument they get the most. But they usually don’t feel safe to get to that kind of discussion.”
I’m not sure what to say.
Parents of young kids especially are struggling with finding age-appropriate ways to talk to their children about the situation.
“I haven’t figured it out yet. What do you say to a 3-year-old?” one pregnant mother from Arlington, Virginia posed, “I feel good that he doesn’t know to be scared but bad that he’ll someday learn.”
“I’m a synagogue preschool director,” a parent of three from Newton, MA, told us. “At our synagogue, we have blue ribbons tied on the trees in an attempt to raise awareness about the plight of the hostages. One of the kids asked why we had blue ribbons up and I said, ‘it’s to show our love for the children of Israel.’ A parent who was walking by thanked me for that answer, saying she hadn’t been sure what to say.”
“One of our children asked if Hamas was killing children,” a parent of a 9 and 7-year-old from Maryland recounted. “We were stunned by this clear question in the moment, holding both not wanting to answer this question and not knowing how to answer. We punted a bit — refocusing on how many are in harm’s way and we pray for everyone’s safety and healing. My therapist wisely explained that asking what are the feelings behind this question will most likely reveal fear of their own safety and we can address these feelings — and not have to address the painful reality that yes, Hamas has killed children.”
“Each day after school they ask for updates on the war,” that same parent shared. “They’ve been asking, ‘Who is winning?’ We respond with explaining that there are no winners in war. That Israel will still be there after this ends and that they’re safe.”
“It’s so tough. After the first religious school after October 7, instead of being uplifted and comforted she asked ‘What is this all for? No one likes Jewish people,'” one mother of an 8-year-old from Virginia said. “I seriously thought parenting through Covid would have been the hardest thing I’d do, or that it would have better prepared me for other crises.”
The view from Israel
Israeli parents are having really difficult conversations with their children right now. While the images of October 7 are still in some ways remote to us, for many of their kids, it’s a very frightening, near reality. In almost every corner of the country, families are running to shelters multiple times a day. Young kids are hearing the boom of the Iron Dome, and sometimes, of missile and missile fragment impacts, regularly.
One mother of four from Southern Israel has been keeping some facts purposely secret. “I’m talking very little about the hostages. There was proof found on the terrorists’ bodies that they were intending to hit our town, too. I don’t need to give my kids nightmares about terrorists invading our own house and killing or kidnapping us,” she told Kveller in the survey.
“I have forbidden the 13 and 10-year-old from reading any news on their own,” she said. “I dole out information as it comes up and as I think they can handle it — I have to tell them more than I want to because they’ll hear it from friends and teachers if not from me. Their friends have lost family members, you can’t hide it from them. Their teachers have rocket sirens during distance learning. They have teachers and school staff who are from evacuated areas and cannot go back home.”
“They know that this isn’t a ‘usual’ operation. They know it’s a real war. They know how many people have died, not that it’s a number they can even comprehend. They don’t know the horrific details of how people were killed.”
One of their kids is six, and for her “I keep things much simpler. She has no clue as to the extent of what’s going on. She knows we can’t play outside. She knows what to do when there are sirens. She understands, to the best of her ability, about rockets. She has few other details beyond.”
“For my 3-year-old, she’s adorably oblivious. She knows that when we hear a siren, we have to run to the shelter — but I accidentally conditioned her to associate the shelter with snacks, so she gets excited. She doesn’t know that it’s to literally save our lives from rockets. She didn’t even make that connection when one fell right next to our building and damaged our apartment, around 20 other apartments, and the preschool next door.” Her son, 10, had a panic attack after that rocket made impact and set off their fire alarm. “He thought we had to choose whether to stay put and die by fire or evacuate and die by rocket.”
When her kids ask if they’re safe, she answers “Right now, yes.” And yet, she says she still wouldn’t contemplate leaving Israel — and even is thinking about having another child.
“Not all of us are sitting on our suitcases waiting to be rescued,” Dr. Hannah Klempner from Hod Hasharon, Israel, a grandmother of 11 wrote us. “We appreciate help from all the world, but we can only be sure of ourselves.”
Bridging the divide
At times of grief and fear, it’s so easy for us to stay siloed in our own suffering. Yet, it’s our job as parents, too, to show our children that even in our pain, in our legitimate fear of very real antisemitism, we also see the profound pain of others. Parents have been talking to their children about the profound suffering of Palestinian people as a result of this war. Parents have been having conversations about how Arab hate and Islamophobia are also on a scary rise.
“I think what is most difficult right now is the feeling of the vulnerability of our lives,” Orit Arfa, a Kveller contributor who lives in Germany and mother to Hanna, 4, professed, “When I put her to bed and see her sleeping sounding, I think of those families who woke up on Saturday morning not realizing it as the last time they might have put their kid to bed. And now thinking of the children in Gaza, I feel a certain guilt that Hanna is ok, and I also can’t enjoy the moment as much thinking of all those suffering Jewish children. The thought of: ‘It could’ve been us’ haunts me all the time. It’s like every morning is more precious than ever, and I find myself thinking about how I would feel if I was in the situation of the victims. It’s horrendous.”
One parent of a 7-year-old from Boston told her child that “our job as Jews is to stamp out oppression and heal the world — that includes by embracing the full humanity of every person in the world. Governments are not people. We can stand with both Israeli and Palestinian people.”
One mother of three from Sydney, Australia, has been having lots of talks about Israel’s history with her two younger kids, 13 and 16, explaining the history, and the complexity of the situation. “They are getting a lot of propaganda from both sides on TikTok, so I’m talking to them about how to interpret that and that both are extreme views. That we can be shattered by what happened in Israel but also feel that Palestinian civilians do not deserve what is happening. The most important thing we have told them is that we are all people and that we need to be kind.” Her husband is a Ukrainian immigrant, which adds another layer of complexity to these already painful conversations.
A mother of an 11-year-old from California told us that her son’s peers, Jewish and non-Jewish, are having conversations with him about the situation — “I know I can’t (and don’t want to) hide things from him,” she wrote. “I also make sure he knows that while this directly affects us as Jews there are other communities involved going through horrendous situations during this war. I don’t want him to be vengeful regardless of how natural that feeling can be. That our history and the history of Palestinians is intertwined. We also pray together that soon this nightmare will end and a peaceful coexistence will emerge.”
A mother of an 11-year-old and 8-year-old from NY asked her son to go to her with questions, not to Google. She reminded him that they “love lots of Israelis and Palestinians.” She talked to him about Itzhak Rabin’s assassination and played to him the song for peace that was found, stained with blood, in his pocket. She talked about “right wing Israeli extremists” who “stopped the peace process then and we cried.”
“The next day our close friends here who are Palestinian asked to come over for a hug before work. Our 8-year-old had already gone to school and our 11-year-old saw us embrace her and sob together. We told him it is easier to collapse people into ‘us and them’ or ‘other,’ and that in our family we have compassion for everyone, and most people want peace for their families wherever they live.” She told him that that wanting peace can be a thing that causes pain. “That means we are human.”
One mother of three from Colorado says her children “have been asking me to sing to them before bed like we used to do but stopped as they grew older. Specifically, they want to hear Hebrew peace songs. So I sing ‘Lo Yisa Goy,’ ‘Oseh Shalom,’ ‘Salaam (Od Yavoh Shalom,)’ and any other prayer or Hebrew peace songs I can think of in my out of tune, but heartfelt voice.”