A local play space for kids stumbles into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict


The Playseum, a children’s play space with locations in Bethesda and on Capitol Hill, became yet another battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of letter-writing events announced by its owner. (Laura Lakeway/For The Washington Post)

The Playseum, a children’s play space with locations in Bethesda and on Capitol Hill, features story time, a designated birthday room and a child-size pretend grocery store. It’s a long way from Gaza.

But Wednesday morning it inadvertently became yet another battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when its owner announced that the Playseum would be holding two events at which kids could write letters to children affected by the conflict — one day’s dispatches would go to Israelis, one to Palestinians.

The announcements came in two separate e-mail blasts to the Playseum’s mailing list, the first issued at 8:44 Wednesday morning. Right under the center’s whimsical logo — a parent and child bumblebees, alongside the phrase “Be with me” — the e-mail said, “The Playseum loves Israel,” and specifically invited Jewish families to visit the center to write letters on Sundays in August. The second e-mail, announcing a similar campaign for Palestinian children that would be held on Fridays, was sent 21 / 2 hours later. After addressing the hot-button international issue, both e-mails moved on to reminding parents about the Playseum’s birthday party hotline and ended with a 10 percent off coupon for last-minute August field trips.

The missives set off a flurry of responses on both fronts, according to owner Gina Seebachan, who since Wednesday morning has been the target of dozens of angry notes, Facebook posts and tweets. After the first event was announced, people wanted to know why no similar event had been organized for Palestinians. Nearly every respondent thought that the events were inappropriate.

For local mother Laila el-Haddad, who has family living in Gaza, seeing the initial e-mail “felt like a slap in the face.” A friend who is on the Playseum’s mailing list forwarded her the announcement, and el-Haddad was both confused and outraged by it.

“It was very bizarre, frankly,” she said, of the first note, adding that she was encouraged to see plans for a second event for Palestinian children.

“I think it shows she just needed more information,” she said. “Maybe she didn’t know any better.”

Seebachan said she had always intended to hold events for both sides of the conflict — she’d received a flier from a parent about sending letters to Israeli children, which is why she announced the event for Israel first. She had been hoping that someone would respond with a suggestion for ways to get letters to Gaza. About mid-morning, a parent directed Seebachan to Mona El-Farra, director of Gaza Projects for the Middle East Children’s Alliance, who will be helping the Playseum to send its letters for Palestinian children. That’s when Seebachan sent out her second e-mail.

In light of the backlash, she acknowledged that the events, although well-intentioned, were not wellthought-out. She had come up with the plan Tuesday night, when, while watching the news with her 9-year-old son, she had to explain to him what a bomb shelter was.

“It really broke my heart, and I’m like, ‘What can I do about it?’ ” she said.

She sent the first message as soon as she could Wednesday morning, even though she had not planned what would take place at the event (the e-mail announcement says the event will include “Jewish story times” and a “unique craft,” but Seebachan is not yet sure what those will be), and did not have a concrete plan for the parallel event for Palestinian children.

And although she does not see a problem in holding two separate events focusing on each side of the conflict, she wishes now that she had announced them simultaneously.

Still, Seebachan says she is shocked by the fury of the responses to her announcement.

“I guess in regards to our children I thought that we would have mercy on either side,” she said. “But all I’ve gotten this morning is hate mail on both sides, and I never meant to be controversial.”

This is not the first time she has unwittingly waded into controversy. In 2010, a year after the Playseum opened its Bethesda location, Seebachan — an evangelical Christian — was accused of pushing her faith on her clients.

In responding to Facebook commenters Wednesday, Seebachan referred to those previous accusations as evidence of her experience with religious conflict.

“This post was not meant to start a war. As we all know, religion is a touchy issue. In fact it was with religion that someone tried to shut the Playseum down the first year of being open due to my Christian beliefs,” she wrote, before assuring readers that the Playseum does, in fact, “love the children of Palestine.”

Seebachan will go forward with the events as planned, although she might have a smaller crowd than anticipated. She said a number of people wrote to her Wednesday saying that they would not return to the Playseum — and asked to be taken off the mailing list.

Sarah Kaplan is a reporter for Morning Mix.
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