How to Talk to Your Kids About Antisemitism

A conversation with our Children’s and Youth Ministry Team leaders.

by Jews for Jesus | February 17 2024

This article is shared with us by our team at Jewish Gentile Couples, which provides coaching and support for interfaith couples.

The recent rise in antisemitism is difficult enough for us to process as adults. It may seem even more daunting to discuss this issue with our children. Daunting, but important.

So, we took the opportunity to sit down with two leaders of our Children’s and Youth Ministry Team. Together, Ilana Brickner and Rebekah Rood co-direct a team that ministers to children across North America. Ilana holds a Master of Education in counseling for children and youth. Rebekah is a mother of two young children. Both have over a decade of experience working with kids of all ages.

Q: We can think of many reasons why we, as Jewish parents, should be having conversations with our kids about antisemitism. What do you think are the most important reasons?

IB: Sadly, antisemitism is a reality that isn’t going away. It’s something we’ve seen over the course of thousands of years—and for Jewish families, it’s personal. And as with any hard topic, it’s not like antisemitism goes away if we decide not to talk about it.  

We can’t fix antisemitism, but we can take some of the fear out of it by letting our kids know they have a safe place to ask questions and process their feelings. If your safe person is ignoring or avoiding something, it makes that thing scarier. 

RR: They need to learn about antisemitism just like they need to learn about racism and sexism. And just because you’re not talking about it doesn’t mean they’re not asking questions. Do we want our children to come to us to ask those questions or go to someone else? 

It’s a missed opportunity if it’s not engaged with. As parents, as people who are out of our depth trying to give help and security to our young people, issues like antisemitism are really important opportunities for conversation.

I actually don’t know how to explain anything that happened on October 7. So current events also become a place to talk about doubt; and doubt is a thing that we don’t want to talk about with our kids. But we have to talk about it.

Q: At what age do you think we should be having a conversation about antisemitism with kids?

RR: There’s an “in general” answer and a “when there are things going on in the world” answer.

For every family’s story, it’s going to be different. In the American school curriculum, if your kid has finished fourth grade and hasn’t read a book about the Holocaust, you should find out what’s going on at your kid’s school. 

At the same time, my oldest just turned five, but he’s reading, and he’s really paying attention to the world around him. We live in New York City, so we ride the subway. There are posters hanging up. You may not live in New York, but if you are listening to the news, assume your child is overhearing.

We don’t want to throw world events at our kids, but neither do we want to ignore issues they are worried about. If they are asking questions, that is a good indicator that they are ready to have a conversation, at least on some level.

IB: That conversation about antisemitism—the idea that some people might not like you simply because you’re Jewish—I think that that can only come after instilling in kids that they are Jewish, and why their Jewish identity matters, and why it’s important. I don’t think that should be all lumped into one conversation—you’re Jewish, this is why it matters, and you should celebrate it, and this is important, but people might hate you for it. 

Q: What are some age-appropriate ways to talk about current events and antisemitism with kids? How do we share without scaring them?

RR: Leading with questions. For example, saying, “What have you heard about …” gives you, the parent, a chance to find out what questions they already have and what direction the conversation may need to go.

You can set some boundaries as a family beforehand. Some parents have said something like, “I need you to know there are some things going on in Israel. I need you to not watch videos on the Internet right now. But you can read the news, and you can ask questions.”

It’s also about our relationship with our kids. You might say, “I’m feeling sad, and I want you to know why I’m feeling sad. I don’t want to be sad and not talk to you about it.”

IB: One way to introduce the conversation is through prayer. You might say, “This is really sad, and we’re going to pray together for our friends who are being affected by it.” At the same time, if the topic of antisemitism is not occupying any part of their brain, especially amidst conflict, don’t feel the need to introduce it. Don’t take your kid farther than you’re willing to go with them. 

RR: And part of it is training our kids what to do if they encounter antisemitism (or any other type of bullying) at school or other places. It makes sense to tell a child, “People aren’t allowed to say things about anyone that are mean, including Jewish people. If you feel like people are saying things that are mean, you should tell me or you can tell your teacher.” 

And if they do have questions, give yourself permission to not have all the answers. To circle back, to tell your kid, “I don’t know. Let me think about it. I’ll come back to you.”

Q: In an intermarried couple, how can the non-Jewish partner come alongside the Jewish one to have this conversation?

RR: Tablet does a podcast, and every year they do a conversion episode for Shavuot to honor the stories of people who join the tribe on purpose. Whether through conversion or marriage, they’ve chosen to become Jewish-adjacent. It seems like such an act of stupid love. I don’t think people always or ever are thinking about antisemitism and Nazi lists when they marry a Jewish person, but it’s a history they’re choosing to share in. 

IB: The first thing that comes to mind is Ruth. She’s an amazing example of saying, “Where you go, I’ll go.” To me that’s more about family relationships than anything else. When you choose to build a family with someone, you’re choosing all of that person. Who they are changes. Maybe you didn’t think your partner’s Jewishness was a big deal to them in the early stages of the relationship. But we’ve heard many couples say, “We have to raise these humans, and we want them to know who they are.” Now, your partner may be on a journey, and because of your relationship with them, you are part of that journey.

Additionally, some Jewish people are saying, “I’m a lot more affected than I thought I would be by the events of October 7, and what makes that even harder is my spouse not getting it.” We didn’t talk about antisemitism beforehand because we had the privilege not to. 

In a family, your focus needs to be on your people and what they feel. So, a non-Jewish spouse can seek to understand their Jewish loved one by listening before commenting.

RR: Marriage is a unique invitation, challenge, and opportunity to bear each other’s burdens. 

Q: How can parents boldly celebrate their Jewishness now and encourage their children to do the same in the midst of rising antisemitism?

RR: You’re Jewish–you can’t change that part of your identity, whether you show it outwardly or not. That needs to be celebrated as much as it is a liability! 

The Jewish story is a story of persecution and hardship. It’s also a story of God’s faithfulness; there’s no other rational reason for Jewish survival and Jewish persistence. God’s not done with the Jewish people. 

So I would ask, What about being Jewish can you celebrate?

IB: You were born Jewish for a reason, and so were your kids. There are so many cool things. There’s not a lot of other cultures that have such a richly documented existence. I think that another important reason to celebrate is that doing things with other people makes this less hard. It’s easier to be in community and deal with a hard thing than to be alone and deal with a hard thing. 

Q: What would you say to a Jewish parent who’s feeling afraid to raise their kids “Jewishly” at this moment in time? For example, some people are wondering whether it is safe to send their children out in public wearing a star.

RR: First of all, you’re feeling afraid. We’re really sorry you’re feeling afraid. There are spiritual and biblical ways that we support people in their journey. There are mental health resources and self-care ways that we can help people through their fear too. 

Being publicly Jewish or visibly Jewish, especially in ways that you haven’t been before, may not feel comfortable to you today. So, maybe wearing your star on the train isn’t feeling safe to you right now. You probably weren’t doing it anyway. Don’t start now; you don’t have to.

Jewish people are in a state of grief, and grief takes lots of forms. Being gentle with ourselves enables us to feel gentle with our people. We want to encounter our kids as compassionately as we can. We’re going to have a really hard time receiving the hard questions of our kids if we’re meeting our own hard feelings with judgment. 

In New York last Hanukkah, there were people who were not Jewish putting menorahs in their window because they knew the Jewish people in their neighborhoods were afraid. On the other hand, there’s this truth that you can be faithfully celebrating Hanukkah without putting a menorah in the window.

IB: You have to assess; it’s OK to be afraid, and it’s OK to not do something because you’re afraid. But don’t build your house there.

As a principle, we try to teach kids not to be ashamed of who they are, to always be proud of who they are. But there are seasons for being hidden or having selective disclosure. The Jewish community is very good at guilt. I went through that thinking, I shouldn’t be ashamed or scared. The temptation to compare my life to someone else’s life comes. We can’t compare our ability to somebody else’s ability.

Q: What resources would you recommend to help guide a conversation with kids about antisemitism?

The Jewish Education Project has videos about what’s going on in Israel. They’ve done things at a kid level and at a teen level.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is really good. It’s the standard fourth-grade curriculum.

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom is appropriate for most kids over age 10. But we recommend reading it alongside your child so you can answer any questions and help them process through hard scenes.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York (the Holocaust Museum) has an exhibit called “The Courage to Act.” It showcases the Gentiles of Denmark who decided they were going to save their Jewish community. It’s the first exhibit about the Holocaust for kids as young as age nine.

You might also consider reading Scriptures that comfort and inspire your family, such as the Psalms. Here is one example: “God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Q: Sometimes parents need to be parented too; it takes a village! How would you like to encourage parents right now?

RR: In some ways, Jewish community is extra-accessible right now. People are looking to come together. If you are wanting to learn more about Jewish tradition, you’re not alone. There is something about crisis that brings us together. Jewish people do shiva and mourning; we know how to do that. We want to be a safe space for our kids, and parents need that too. 

And if you’re a person of faith or open to considering that, it’s comforting to know that as sad and broken as we are over current events, God is even more heartbroken over the pain in the world.