On Saturday, October 7, a relative called me to ask if I had seen the news out of Israel. Though I am not an observant Jew, I do refrain from using social media and try to avoid the internet on Shabbat, in the hopes of retaining the sanctity and peace of the day. Once my relative made me aware of the horrific events that were unfolding, my mind scrambled to make sense of the multitude of emotions flooding my body.
While I struggled with my own anxiety over the terror, I realized I had to, at some point, address this with my children. Now, I will pause to acknowledge my immense privilege in having the opportunity to decide whether or not to shield my children from this information. I know my friends and family who heard siren after siren and had to scramble to bomb shelters do not have the privilege of avoiding this conversation. I know Israelis and others seeking missing loved ones do not have this privilege.
Still, I worried about what my kids might learn on their own, and I wanted to be proactive in addressing any fears or concerns. I didn’t want them getting on the bus and hearing some graphic comments without context. I also wanted them to be prepared in case their teachers or another school official spoke about the unfolding war.
I chose to share what I knew with my 10-year-old. Figuring he and I already had many thoughtful discussions on Israel and the ongoing conflict in the region, I felt he had both the maturity and emotional fortitude to handle a general overview of current events. As a middle school student, I also figured he would be more likely to encounter discussion on this matter than my 8-year-old would in elementary school.
With both kids back in school after the long weekend, I spent much of that Tuesday morning anxiously wondering what they would hear in school that day.
As soon as my eldest walked through the door, I got my answer.
Nothing. Nothing was said.
Not one word acknowledging Hamas’ murders and kidnappings. Not one in support of Jewish students. Not even one in solidarity with Palestinians. Nothing. It was as if the entire weekend I had just endured somehow occurred in a parallel universe.
I live in a majority white, Christian town, where few of its residents have any connection to Israel or the Middle East. My kids are often the only Jews in their classes at public school and ones of only a handful of Jews in their respective grades. I believe the number of Arab students is equally as small, maybe smaller.
Without significant representation of Jews or Arabs in my area, the issues of our respective communities are not the issues of our larger community. As my husband put it: What is happening in Israel might as well be happening on another planet.
In other parts of my state, Jewish children experienced a very different return to school. Speaking with one friend, I learned that the principal at her daughter’s school, which has a significant number of Jewish students, did speak about the terrorism in Israel. I am unaware of the process that led to this announcement, but I imagine there were many discussions with school board members, school counselors, fellow administrators and experts to ensure the message invoked the proper level of sensitivity.
I have no idea if any such talks happened in my school district. And I am unaware of what might be happening in the upper middle school grades and high school. As of this writing, I have not yet seen an official statement from my district leaders, but teachers may still be engaging in dialogue with their students and attempting to provide support and guidance. I just know that my kids have been met with silence.
As much as I want to be angry at the district for keeping silent on this, a huge part of me is happy they aren’t saying anything. I ask myself, would I rather have my kids be at a school where they might hear that the victims of Hamas terror “deserved it,” echoing sentiments too often shared on social media? And even if what they were hearing at school was overwhelmingly empathetic, would I want them to be constantly reminded about the violence and tragedy?
The situation I am in allows me and my husband to control the narrative, and that is a weird benefit to being in an area where most residents aren’t impacted by Israel. We can decide what and how much to share without fear of another child showing our kids a graphic photo or making an antisemitic comment. This situation afforded me the time to gather my thoughts and determine the best way to finally address the news with my 8-year-old. I believe I could have waited even longer.
While this sheltered environment I find myself in has its benefits, it can be a lonely one in times like these. For young Jewish children, finding connection and support from their Jewish peers is important. An announcement acknowledging the tragedy in Israel, an offering of a safe space for Jewish students, a guide to classroom discussion, would all go a long way toward healing.
Like with the war in Ukraine, as news of Israel gains ground and more Americans learn of the suffering felt by so many, I imagine that even my community will no longer be able to avoid speaking up. Until then, I embrace my role as a Jewish parent and will continue to provide the support my children need to help them through these difficult times.