How to talk to kids about antisemitism

One Jewish mom shares how her family reacted to Kanye West's antisemitic outbursts. (Photo: Getty Creative)
One Jewish mom shares how her family reacted to Kanye West's antisemitic outbursts. (Photo: Getty Creative)

My daughter was devastated when we told her she could no longer wear her backpack, lunchbox and sneakers to schools.

This was a few weeks ago after a certain rapper spewed hateful remarks against the Jewish community and before a company he represented dropped him. At first, our 10-year-old daughter was only able to understand that her parents were banning her favorite sporting brand from her wardrobe.

It was our job to explain to her why it meant so much more. As Jewish parents raising strong, confident, proud Jewish children, we knew we needed to use this as a teaching moment.

While antisemitism has always been around, these days it is more in our face due to a number of factors, including social media. But figuring out how to talk to children about antisemitism, especially when it is being spouted by well-known figures, can be tricky. Laura Shaw Frank, director of the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) Contemporary Jewish Life Department as well as a former Jewish school educator and mother of four, says it's key to start early, way before conflict arises.

“Jewish parents should be mindful in fostering joyful and resilient Jewish identities in your children,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It is so important that our Jewish children not see Jewish identity as being a victim. Jewish identity is special and wonderful and precious and joyful.”

Conversations about the Jewish identity should start early, an expert says. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Conversations about the Jewish identity should start early, an expert says. (Photo: Getty Creative)

All of that needs to be instilled from an early age, although it’s never too late to start. Frank says this can look different for every family, from reading about Jewish history to creating a Shabbat ritual, whether that be lighting candles, making challah or having a family meal together. Parents might help their kids pick out a Jewish star to wear as a piece of jewelry, or encourage discourse about Jewish customs and the culture.

Laying the groundwork will make it easier to handle when the difficult situations come up, and they will.

“That way children are already rooted in Jewish pride and we can say to them, ‘We know sometimes people are filled with hate, but the Jewish people are not going to let that break us,’” Frank suggests. “We have been through a lot of ups and downs and we’re going to continue to stand up and do what we do.”

This is also a chance for allies of the Jewish community to stand tall. Holly Huffnagle, the AJC's U.S. director for combating antisemitism, says people often wonder what they can do to help. Having respectful conversations is a start, especially since one in three Americans don’t know someone who is Jewish, according to the AJC.

“We break it down to three categories: understand, respond and prevent,” Huffnagle says.

This includes understanding and avoiding hateful terminology (AJC has a useful Translate Hate Glossary) in addition to reporting antisemitism.

“If you saw something, did you say something?” Huffnagle asks. “If it’s really bad, report it to the police or report it to a Jewish organization. If you see something on social media, flag it. Don’t leave it to the Jewish community to fight their own fight.”

The company in question that started our own family discussion eventually cut ties with the rapper. As a family, we decided it wasn’t fair to us to spend our hard-earned money on new gear, which would have easily cost a few hundred dollars. We did decide we will no longer support this brand going forward.

Is this the right decision? It is for our family. We feel we are teaching our children a peaceful way to stand up for what we believe in without spewing hate, and we are in control of where our money goes and who it supports.

Unfortunately, since that incident, a few other celebrities have released similarly hateful messages. Thankfully they have seen swift repercussions, and hopefully other brands will use their platforms in a positive, responsible manner.

We know our children will not forget this. We’re hopeful it will instill in them a sense of responsibility, teach a lesson in using their voices to stand up for what is right and maybe even start a healthy discussion with some of their non-Jewish friends.

f you have experienced or witnessed an incident of antisemitism, extremism, bias, bigotry or hate, you can report it to the Anti-Defamation League here.

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