LILY* WAS BESIDE HERSELF when her six-year-old daughter’s school notified her about an antisemitic incident in the classroom this past December. Another first grader reportedly told his classmates something along the lines of: “I hate Jews. All Jews should die. And everyone who celebrates Hanukkah — I want to kill.”
This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to her family at their progressive private school, but it was certainly the worst. “I love my school and my kids are happy there,” says Lily, but she doesn’t feel that her daughter or the other Jewish families received enough support after the incident.
So when Lily and her family attended Friday night Shabbat services that week, she spoke with Rabbi Rena Rifkin, our director of youth education. “I think for some kids, it’s a natural reaction to feel ashamed or to not really understand what they’ve experienced,” says Rabbi Rena. “Our kids have great sensitivity to and depth of emotion around discrimination and racism. But children — and adults, too — often don’t understand antisemitism in that context because it’s so personal and because in New York, we’re a little sheltered.”
“This was the first year my daughter was enrolled in the Religious School, so she already knew the rabbis,” says Lily. “When I asked her if she wanted to tell them what happened, she opened up. Sometimes it helps to have someone besides your parents to talk to — and Rena was able to say things I wouldn’t have thought of.”
That’s part of why it’s so important to have a community to fall back on, Rabbi Rifkin explains, and “to have a place where being Jewish is normal and safe.” And that’s exactly why Lily had enrolled her children at our Religious School in the first place: “It’s one thing to have a couple of Jewish classmates who also celebrate Hanukkah,” she says. “But to have a true sense of belonging — that’s the kind of feeling you can get only at Hebrew school.”
For Rabbi Rena, it’s a matter of instilling Jewish pride: “If the only conversations we’re having with our kids regarding Judaism are about people not liking us because we’re Jewish, then that’s a real problem, right? So we have to have a place to experience the beauty and joy that is Judaism. If we don’t have that, then what are we standing up for?”
Learn more about how our Religious School is the perfect place for your children to explore their Jewish identities and become proud of their heritage. Visit swfs.org/enroll.
*Name has been changed to protect the family’s privacy.