What shall we tell the children?

After services were over this past Shabbat two young fathers approached me. Over the Kiddush din, I slowly began to pick up the question that the two of them were asking me. The Sunday before, our shul, Minyan Ohr Chadash in Seattle had hosted a program for the community, “Connecting with Israel” – participants moved from station to station exploring different ideas, actions, and feelings cogent to the situation.

We have all been grappling with how to respond programmatically to the needs of community members here, even as we struggle to respond to the extreme pressing needs in Israel – since the Israeli war effort in response to the horrific massacre and hostage taking by Hamas on October 7.

To increase awareness, we had hung up pictures of the hostages in the back of our sanctuary and on a bulletin board in the foyer. Now at the kiddush, after services that have been amended and adjusted; misheberechs for Seattle soldiers, prayers for Israel, safety of soldiers, Tehillim, Hatikva, report from someone who has returned from volunteering in Israel — these two young parents were asking me about whether the pictures of the hostages should remain on the walls.

Confession, I was the one who had left them hanging after the Sunday event. Motivated by one-part laziness and two-parts hoping that keeping them would increase the continued consciousness of the situation – motivating perhaps more kavanah in our prayers and more action on their behalf. I began to feel guilty and perhaps a bit defensive about the rawness of those photos.

“Rivy, do you think the pictures should remain up?’ First, I thought their question was motivated by Kavod Bet Keneset – was this a dignified display for a shul? Then I quickly caught on – nope this was about making a reasonable educational and psychological decision.

Got it. It was indeed a good question. And one that is not unconnected to what we have been discussing with other young parents and educators regarding the entire impact of what we’re living through currently.

Though we have all had to navigate the explaining of past tragic situations in Israel, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting resulting in the guards now stationed in front of our Jewish buildings and then school shootings in general – which appallingly we seem to be having to talk a lot about. That said, the massacre on October 7 is the most horrific of horrific. Families destroyed. Terrorist entering the most vulnerable places for all of us – our homes. Shockingly cruel inhuman actions with families and children – the stuff nightmares are made of – how do we “safely” navigate and measure and even consider what we should tell – and how and what shall we allow our kids to see? I do not think the book has been yet to be written that might guide us.

I found this posted recently online from the American Psychological Association.

  1. Talk with your child.
  2. Make your home a safe place emotionally for your child.
  3. Limit the amount of news your child watches during a time of war.
  4. Realize that the stresses of war may heighten daily stresses.
  5. During a time of war, map out a routine and stick to it.
  6. Make sure you take care of yourself.
  7. Tell children that they will be all right.
  8. Watch your children for signs of fear and anxiety they may not be able to put into words.
  9. Enlist your child’s help.
  10. Put things into a positive perspective for your child.

These are all solid. I am not sure they apply to the Jewish community right now. We are so deeply immersed in the situation. Our children are not only hearing things in our homes, but they are experiencing the situation in real-time both at school and at home as news reaches us. It is complicated and a challenge to be vigilant 24/7 as dreadful reports reach us about friends and or family members in Israel. This is startlingly new territory.

Feelings don’t lie. And children are very good at picking up on what is going on around them.

Schools have sent some parameters to parents with guidelines only to reassess those very guidelines as the war and horror continues.

Friends, I think for now – all bets are off. There are no magic formulas and no one-size fits all paradigms.

Bring your children close and tell them that you love them. Just like when you might when you read them a scary fairy tale. At this point all that I had written about talking to children after the Pittsburgh shooting seems wildly optimistic. We are in whole other reality. Just imagining how Israeli parents are coping right now is a sobering thought for those of us outside Israel. And we need to remember that, and – that no Jew is having an easy time right now.

Here in Seattle on this past Shabbat morning our children not only saw pictures of hostages on their shul wall – but they also saw firetrucks, bomb units and police dealing with threatening letters delivered by mail to most of our local synagogues this weekend.

So, here are the best thoughts for the two fathers who approached me.

Crouch down and read the captions, let them see the pictures. Tell them that there are bad people in the world. Remind them of the times that we Jews have been in trouble and saved – Chanukah, Purim, Pesach. Tell them our faith in God teaches us to believe that things will get better. Tell them good people are working twenty-four hours a day to get those precious captives back. Tell them you love them; tell them they are safe and say a silent prayer that it should stay that way.

About the Author
Rivy Poupko Kletenik, a 2002 Exceptional Jewish Educator Covenant Award Winner, just completed sixteen years as Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. Rivy is an enthusiastic writer and devotee of poetry and literature. Her column “What’s Your JQ” appeared for years in the JT News and then “Jewish in Seattle Magazine” and she is thrilled and proud to be awarded the Simon Rockower American Jewish Press Association Excellence in Commentary.
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