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You Asked, Panelists Answered: Jewish Education in a Scary World


Jan. 29, 2015

On January 21st, The Jewish Education Project brought together a panel of five educators, with diverse experiences and perspectives, to discuss Jewish Education in a Scary World. The conversation centered on how Jewish educators could or should respond to recent events in France and around the world. The panelists, in a discussion moderated by Dr. David Bryfman, explored how educators could address sensitive and scary topics with youth of all ages and what concrete things educators could do for their learners and communities.

While Dr. Bryfman took some questions from you, our audience, during the live conversation, we unfortunately could not answer all of the great questions you asked…until now. Three of our panelists have graciously answered many of the questions you sent in during the webinar in the days following it, and we’re publishing their answers here today for you to read, think about, and discuss in the comments below.

The following responses are our panelist’s personal views and do not reflect their organizations or institutions nor the views of The Jewish Education Project.


Q: In the past year, many students have seen armed security in place at school and/or security guards outside their synagogue. How do we impress upon them that they should not live in fear, but rather live smart and aware? Is this enough? 

Peter Nelson: Listen to them as these changes go into effect. Sadly, it's not that unusual any more - we walk through metal detectors and see security guards everywhere. The world is a dangerous place, but less and more so depending on where you live. It's a balancing act. The most important thing we can do is listen to them when they speak, watch them as they behave and model the attitude we espouse.

Dr. Brigitte Sion: Students should be made aware of safety issues everywhere, not just in Jewish facilities. We live in a violent society, unfortunately, with hatred and guns. Unfortunately, Jews have a longer experience of protecting their buildings and their community members, and that's why security is mostly visible there. But there is security everywhere, but we don't necessarily see it.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood: I like to give kids and students real life examples that are similar to new situations they might face, such as increased security in our synagogues or schools. I tell them that it's like having security at the airport. Nine times out of ten, we don't need it, but when we do, it's so important that we have it there, just in case. Then I explain (depending on the age group) that the security is there as much for their protection as it is to give them peace of mind. We live in a world (in general) that isn't always safe and it's nice to know we have people looking out for us. We also live in a world (more specifically) where people do unpredictable things, sometimes even to Jews, and it's important that we be prepared for everything. It's more about helping them to understand WHY the security is there so that they can then go on in a normal way.

 Q: Are there are particular news sources you (the panelists) prefer to go to for information?

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood: Any credible news source or newspaper, regardless of their view or their politics (left, right, centrist) is helpful to scan for information. I go to as many sources as possible to understand any conflict, issue, or idea when I'm teaching about it, because that is what is needed to present as accurate and unbiased a view as possible. So, that's a long way of saying, no - there's nothing in particular that's my go-to news source. 

Q: How do we teach our kids that antisemitism is about them when their Jewish identity is weak?

Peter Nelson: There is no way of getting around sharing the reality of the world with them. We don't protect them by keeping this from them. So, if we must share the truth that much of the world is either antisemitic or, for lack of contrary voices, open to being so, we also have no choice but to strengthen their Jewish identity. But that Jewish identity should not be founded on being fighters against antisemitism. The values of Judaism and the wisdom of the Jewish people must be taught with religious energy. It should be done not through lecture but through discovery so they can uncover it the same way you would hidden treasure. The delight in finding through their own energy will make it theirs, potentially for a lifetime.

Dr. Brigitte Sion: I think it's worth emphasizing the extraordinary history and accomplishments of the Jewish people, which are partly owed to their resilience, capacity to adapt and rebound, and their survival effort. If the Jewish identity is weak, then part of the Jewish educator's job is to strengthen it - to make it positive, proud, beautiful. Then the part about antisemitism will not be at the center, but instead at the periphery. Otherwise, it will be the opposite balance.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood: Honesty. We need to constantly (throughout their young Jewish lives and into adulthood) reinforce the power and prevalence of Jewish peoplehood and always strive to impress positive Jewish identity upon them, while simultaneously teaching them about the reality of the world, at age appropriate times. If we deny a student access to information about the real world and some of it's hatred against the Jews, they will only resent us (and Judaism) later for not having been made aware of it, earlier. Jewish self-identity and antisemitism are not juxtaposing ideas - they can be taught in tandem. It's possible that by learning about how others "see us," it might help strengthen a child's identity in terms of how they define "us" and the "other." Self-identity comes in many forms, and when you realize that there are people that don't necessarily like "you" it can really help you to better define and think about your own identity.

Q: Can you reflect on antisemitism within a more universal context of prejudice and bias?

Peter Nelson: I'm assuming question this means: is it appropriate to subsume antisemitism under a more general rubric of prejudice and bias? It's universal in its similarity to racism and other ‘isms.’ It's particular in its 2000 year history. Both aspects have to be respected when trying to understand it.

Dr. Brigitte Sion: I think it's key to emphasize that antisemitism is a form of racism, with its specificities and its own history. It's hatred against Jews, period. It's been around for 3000 years. Even after Auschwitz, it continues. Antisemitism functions in patterns, repetition. Always the same stereotypes, the same attacks, the same motifs, but each time under a different guise.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood: Antisemitism, when you get right down to the heart of it, is about fear and hatred because of misunderstandings and lack of knowledge, played out on a grand scale. Teaching about the causes of antisemitism involves teaching about why people scapegoat and are prejudiced based on fears and anger. Education and understanding are key elements in teaching about how to combat a more universal notion of prejudice and bias.

Q: The morning of the panel discussion, 10 people were stabbed in a bus in Tel Aviv. Some people would call this anti-Zionism rather than antisemitism. How do we approach this differentiation (if it indeed exists) with our students?

Peter Nelson: Anti-Zionism is the current age's version of antisemitism. I'm unaware of another people who are ‘anti-ed’ for having national aspirations.

Dr. Brigitte Sion: No, anti-Zionism has a rigorous definition: it is the denial for Israel to exist. It's not a critical attitude vis-à-vis the Israeli government or Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. It's saying, with various arguments, that Israel should be taken off the map, whether through violence (Hamas, Hezbollah), or by calling for a one-state solution (which would make Israel lose its Jewish identity), or by using legal arguments or theological arguments.

The attack on the bus was a targeted attack against Jewish citizens in Israel.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood: This is a GREAT question. I believe that they can be addressed differently when they are taught about within different contexts. I believe in teaching about antisemitism as a more general subject after students have learned about Jewish history and/or the Holocaust. That's where I believe teaching about antisemitism belongs. I believe that teaching about anti-Zionism should be taught after big units on Israel in upper grades (presuming they've already learned about history, the Holocaust and antisemitism). It's a much more specific form on ‘anti’ than general antisemitism and so I believe, vehemently, that it should be taught within an Israel-education lens. 

Q: I have had multiple current college students (who I had in an educational setting when they were younger) email me asking me about my thoughts and reactions to the situation in France. Do you have any suggestions about an appropriate response I can give them when I am not physically there to lead them through the dialogue in a structured educational program? I still feel a responsibility to address the issue. I think this relates to a broader question: how do we address these events, as an educator, when we can’t develop or use a full curriculum or program?

Peter Nelson: Listen, ask questions, and direct them to sources that you respect (if you don't have the ability to encounter them in a serious and prolonged way).

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood: My advice is to simply meet them where they are - who are they as a learner (since you probably know it best, as their former educator) and where they are emotionally with it. If they are reaching out to you, they value their relationship with you as their educator and so you must find out and dig deep about where they are on an intellectual and emotional level. As college students, they have wide access to information and they are really no longer asking to learn from you in a formal setting. They are reaching out to find out how they should go about forming thoughts and opinions, and it really varies from person to person and your comfort level with the issue and the circumstance. What an honor, that students are still reaching out to you, beyond their time with you, to think their own opinions, ideas and educational understanding through with someone they trust and respect. 



Faigy Gilder
Director of Digital Content & Project Manager, DJLN

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