Every night before my oldest nods off, he asks me to check and see if the front door is locked. The ritual is the same: As I make my way to the door, he shouts, “Top and bottom, Mom!” and then he waits for the incontrovertible click of each latch. Only then does he feel safe enough to lay his head onto his pillow. Only then can he relinquish the iron grip on his eyelids and allow his body to sink into sleep.
At almost 10 years old, my son is increasingly aware that the world outside our apartment is, at times, unsafe and unkind. He picks up the newspaper in the morning, and though he makes a beeline for the sports page, he nevertheless catches a glimpse of the front page, which is often splattered with shocking headlines and gruesome pictures. He may not stop to read these stories, but he undoubtedly notices them, absorbs them. Every once in a while, he’ll ask a question about something he sees, but he rarely dwells. Yet taking in all of this complicated information takes its toll: I see it in his eyes, I feel it in his grip, and I hear it in his voice.
Over these past few weeks, I know my son has been exposed to the terribly upsetting news about our JCCs, and the multiple anti-Semitic incidents around the country. The conversations are pervasive and even if he didn’t read about it here in the house, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t see it elsewhere. Every day, the news is peppered with words like “bomb threat” and “evacuation.” Every day those words are applied to another victimized Jewish community, including, our own (we weren’t there and didn’t need to be evacuated). It’s just a tremendous amount of data and emotion to process.
Of course, it isn’t just my son who feels the impact of these bomb threats. So many of our children are exposed to them, asking about them, and most devastatingly, experiencing them. So what are we to do? What are we to say?
I only wish I knew the “right” words to say to our kids, and the “perfect” way to say them. I don’t. I’m also quite certain there isn’t one right way to engage in challenging conversations like these. There are no magic formulations when it comes to comfort; there are no panaceas guaranteed to alleviate their worry. And so we are guided by our love, our instincts and our good judgment. At the same time, we can also find inspiration in our tradition, and age-old wisdom to help us frame our approach to these conversations:
1. The watchword of our people is listening.
Maybe the question of “What should we say to our children in the aftermath of the JCC threats” is better served by a different formulation. Perhaps it isn’t “What should we say” to them, but rather, “What do we hear?” from them. In the Shema we say, “Shema Yisrael…” Hear O’ Israel… At the core of everything we do is this art and act of listening—to God, to our communities, to our peers and our friends, to our families and our children.
We are taught that listening forms the bridge between us and the Divine, that listening to one another is the key element of any relationship. Perhaps in focusing not on our own words, but on those that come from our children, we will forge the best path. This way we respond to their individual needs, rather than the needs we assume they have.
2. Remember that everyone is afraid sometimes.
God told our ancestors “Al tira’u”/”Do not fear”, many, many times over the course of our Tradition. I share this not to minimize or dismiss the fear that our children feel; but rather to emphasize that fear is something even the bravest, strongest, most heroic people feel. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all intensely afraid at different points in their lives, as were so many prophets and judges and kings. They were hesitant, they were fearful; they were worried about their safety and uncertain futures. They named their fears before God and we can encourage our children to do the same with us. In a world where it is often seen as weak to share our vulnerabilities, we can help our children see they are actually strong for talking about their fears.
3. Strength comes from compassion.
Judaism teaches us: “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit” (Zecheriah 4:6). In a world filled with such uncertainty and anxiety, we can remind our children that real strength and real power come not from a place of aggression, but from a place of compassion. Strength is found in the heart of the person who stands up against bullying. Power is manifested in the hands of the one who works to make the world a better place, tenderly.
In the face of these threats, we can remind our children of the strength of their communities, of the power of speaking out, and of the might that comes from good people, Jewish and non-Jewish, coming together against hatred and bigotry. One beautiful, timely example is the cascade of Muslim-Americans who have publicly offered to protect their Jewish neighbors and stand guard for Jewish institutions. Yes, real power comes not from those who intimidate, but from those who offer the love of their hearts.
But perhaps most of all, in the face of the fear that our children feel, our greatest gift to them is simply our comfort, our love, and our abiding presence. When the world cannot guarantee our safekeeping, we can help our children experience the comfort of safety in our arms.
Hug early and hug often. We need it now more than ever.