The entire week I’ve been hoping someone would address this issue and I wouldn’t have to touch it. Advising parents about whether or not they should bring their child in Israel back to America is the third rail of Jewish education and rabbinic pastoral care. No matter what side you take or point you bring up, you’re bound to upset someone. I imagine most of my colleagues shy away from writing about this issue publicly and probably even try not to answer privately because they don’t want to upset anyone.
As war commences in Israel, American parents with children studying or on programs in Israel are understandably nervous about their children’s safety. There are rockets being shot into Israel, Palestinian gunmen are trying to invade, and there is the heightened risk of terrorist attacks throughout Israel. The most assured way of guaranteeing a child’s safety is to fly them back to America.
I don’t judge any parent for deciding to bring their child back to America or for telling them to stay put in Israel. Parenting isn’t an easy task, and no parent knows if the decisions they make today are the correct ones. Parents are under a tremendous amount of pressure to get every parenting decision right on a normal day, adding the factor of war to an equation makes the decisions parents have to make about their children even more complicated. There is no right or wrong decision when trying to ensure your child’s safety. Every parent must recognize they are in unchartered waters.
Parents should also understand that their decision to bring their child back to America or stay in Israel is not a referendum on their Zionism or love of Israel. Parents are making a decision about their child’s safety, not about their love of Israel. These are two separate issues. A Jew can love Israel and be a committed Zionist and still bring their child to safety in their home outside of Israel. A parent shouldn’t feel pressured into not doing what they feel is best for their child because they incorrectly think it’ll reflect poorly on their Zionism or love of Israel. In the same way, a parent who keeps their child in Israel and is confident they’re safe shouldn’t think they are neglecting their child’s safety.
Parents must be honest and make sure the decision they’re making is about their child, and not about them. A parent’s fear of something happening to their child shouldn’t be a deciding factor in their child’s life – risk to their child is the issue. A parent does a disservice to their child when they make decisions that affect their children based on their own needs. If a parent decides it’s safe for their child to stay, bringing them home would be unfair to the child, and in the same way, if the parent feels the child should stay, and the child is scared, making them stay because a parent wants them to stay isn’t appropriate for their child.
The most important factor when determining whether to bring a child back to America or not is their safety. How risky is it to keep your child in Israel during a war? The risks during this war are rockets and terrorists. It is obvious that in a country of close to ten million people there is little chance any one person will be hit by a rocket or attacked by a terrorist, but it does happen. Location is the most important factor in determining a child’s safety. The closer one is to Gaza, the greater the risk of being hit by rocket fire. This means that students in the Jerusalem or Tel Aviv/Herzliya areas, which aren’t as frequently targeted, are safe. The risk of a terrorist attack happens when travelling from place to place. If a student will be stationary in their school or on campus, the risk of a terror attack is low. Most schools are on lockdown for just this reason. If a child keeps to the rules, there is very little risk.
A second factor, and one that shouldn’t be discounted, is that of emotional trauma from experiencing war firsthand. I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t speak to whether this should be a major factor or not. If this is a concern for a parent, they should speak to an expert and not assume there is or isn’t a risk of emotional trauma. A mental health professional can assess a child’s individual needs and requirements to remain healthy.
Asking one’s child what do they want to do is an important step in the decision whether or not to bring a child back to America during war. It is important to give your child the space to express themselves and to really listen to the child. Parents shouldn’t accept superficial answers but ask probing questions to make sure their child isn’t feeling pressured either way. It’s easy for a well-meaning teacher to make a comment that creates pressure or guilt in a student, or for peers to create pressure – and yes, even parents. It is crucial to give a child the space to develop their own thoughts and feelings and listen to what the child wants and why.
Parents dealing with this question have sent their child to Israel and not France or Mongolia because they feel the love of Eretz Yisrael, Zionism and an attachment to the State of Israel. These parents want their child to feel that same attachment to the land and State, maybe even want their child to think of Israel as home. These are values they’ve spent years – and probably tens of thousands of dollars – instilling in their child. Irrespective of how much this issue should factor into their decision, a parent must be aware that by bringing their child back to America they are sending a message that Israel is important up to the point of personal safety. A child is smart enough by this point in their life to recognize their American passport buys them privilege their Israeli brothers and sisters don’t enjoy. A parent doesn’t have to factor this point in to their calculus of whether or not to bring their child back to America, but they should be aware of it when making their decision.
To summarize, there is no playbook for war. There is no parents’ guide of how to make the proper decision about whether or not to bring their child back to America or not. As long as they’ve put serious thought into the issue, they’re being a good parent. Let’s hope this issue ends quickly and victory and peace are brought to the Jewish people.