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With hate crimes on the rise, I’m teaching my kids to be kind, not scared

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The bomb threat to our Jewish Community Center in New Jersey came in January, during the second rash of similar calls across the country. My 5-year-old daughter was in the building, in her bright, window-lined classroom, when our front desk staffer took the call from an anonymous terrorist.

I first heard about it via text from a friend who was in the parking lot of the JCC. She asked if I would like her to scoop up my daughter, Annika, and take her home, to safety, if it was possible. Before I had a chance to respond, another text alerted me and hundreds of other parents at our school that a bomb squad had inspected the premises and determined that it was safe.

“They said everything is fine now — resuming normal activities,” texted another friend.

But nothing about this was normal.

I felt confident that our JCC leaders were taking the necessary steps to protect our kids. Our administrators are well aware of the unprecedented uptick in anti-Semitism that our country is experiencing, so they are prepared. (Since that January bomb threat, there have been more than 100 bomb threats to Jewish institutions, and it’s continuing.) But I was worried about Annika’s reaction. Did she understand what had happened? Did it scare her?

As far as I knew, Annika was still living in her 5-year-old reality, and I wanted things to stay that way. I’d spent much of her life covering her eyes and ears when the pretend bad guys appeared in stories and fairy tales; I wasn’t about to let a real life bad guy rear his ugliness in plain sight at her school.

Driving in the car that afternoon after picking up Annika from school, I asked her if anything special had happened that day. She thought for a while, looking out the window, and then finally announced: “We learned some new math games.” I exhaled. The teachers and administrators had remained calm as they’d shielded the children during what the kids thought was a safety drill. After it was over, my daughter’s class had gone about their day — reading, painting and practicing for their play. For now, Annika’s innocence could remain intact.

Before Annika was born, my husband and I decided to send Lena, our 9-year-old, to preschool at the JCC for reasons that still hold true today: We liked the learning philosophy; we found the teachers to be credentialed and kind. But mostly, we hoped the JCC — with its Purim and Hanukkah celebrations, weekly Shabbat singalongs, and emphasis on humanitarian values — would help instill a strong Jewish identity in our daughter. We had worried that this identity could be threatened by apathy or a lack of education about our history. But we hadn’t imagined this Jewish identity would be threatened by hate crimes.

The other day, Lena asked me breezily, “Do you know what a concentration camp is?” I immediately looked over at her sitting on the carpet in the family room surrounded by doll clothes and said, “Yes. Do you?”

My husband and I had intentionally held off on explaining the horrors of the Holocaust to Lena because we had wanted her to be proud of her Jewish heritage before she became scared of it. We had not yet told her that her great (and great-great) grandparents had come to the U.S. to avoid being killed in their own countries during periods of attacks on Jews. We had not yet told her of the relatives who did not survive. And we had not yet told her that her middle name honors a dear great aunt who did survive the concentration camps.

“It’s a place where Jews were killed,” Lena answered, and told me that she was reading a short biography of Anne Frank at school. Unlike the bomb threat at our JCC, the news of the swastika found on the wall of an elementary school in our town, and the increasing number of hate crimes committed against JCCs and other Jewish schools, synagogues and cemeteries over the past two months, I could not shield my daughter from the truth.

I realized I had the choice to either educate my daughter and tell her “never again,” or try to sugarcoat our past and our present and hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Learning from our mistakes, for our kids and for ourselves

So my husband and I sat down with Lena and got real. With great effort and as much tenderness as possible, we shattered the shield of innocence we had so carefully constructed around her, and we told her these truths:

Truth: Anne Frank lived a too-short life because she was murdered along with six million other Jews in the Holocaust.

Truth: Anne Frank lived during a time when people and their leaders blamed Jews and other minorities for the problems in their country.

Truth: Anne Frank was not much older than Lena when her parents could no longer shield her from what was happening all around them.

We explained that people often attack others during times of stress, and that people have the capacity to do horrible, hateful things. But we emphasized that we can be stronger and kinder than that. We can be proud of who we are and our ability to overcome hatred.

A week later, after Lena had finished reading the book about Anne Frank, I asked her if it had scared her. “A little,” she said.

“You know that that will never happen again, right?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe another bad guy could come along and do the same thing.”

This time I didn’t tell her the full truth. I didn’t tell her that despite what we say about “never again,” atrocities against humanity do happen over and over again. Genocides occur in countries around the world, and the first signs of those tragedies often come in the form of hatred for those who are deemed different. And now, in our country, we are witnessing a level of hatred — for Jews, Muslims, black people, LGBT people and other marginalized groups — that I never thought I would see here in my lifetime, and I’m scared too.

Last week, my mom and I went to the JCC to watch Annika perform in “Bony Legs,” a classic Russian folk tale about a horrible witch who tries to eat a good-hearted girl named Sasha, who has arrived at her house deep in the woods.

Spoiler alert: Sasha gets away before the bad witch can harm her. You know why? It turns out that all the creatures Sasha had met during her journey into the woods were grateful to her for the kindness she had shown them, and for the good deeds she had performed on their behalf. So the creatures turned against the witch and helped Sasha get home to safety.

The moral of the story: Sometimes kindness does have the power to overcome hatred and fear, and not just in folk tales. It’s a moral I hope all of our children, and us adults, learn.

Rachel Rabkin Peachman is a journalist who specializes in health, medicine, and family issues. She tweets @RachelPeachman.

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