How do we talk to our kids about Israel/Palestine? One of the most challenging things I face as a rabbi, an educator and a parent is finding developmentally appropriate ways to ease our kids into the morally complicated, historically intricate, sometimes inspiring and often heartbreaking landscape of the Jewish national project in Israel/Palestine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When Kehilla School last met, on Thursday, November 15th, the violence had just erupted again between Israel and Gaza. I was filled with sadness, and with dread about how the conflict might escalate. I really didn’t know what to say to our students, who would be gathering for Tefillah / Spiritual Practice in just a few hours. But I also knew that it was vital that as we were gathering—a group of Jewish kids in a synagogue for religious school—we take some time to acknowledge what was happening, and to share it as a Jewish community.
Every week we end our Tefillah by singing Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu (Let Peace Come Upon Us), a song that uses Hebrew and Arabic to express our hope for peace in the world. Before we sang it last week, I asked the kids to gather in close, and sit on the floor. We talked about the bombings and rockets, about our sadness at the suffering of people in Gaza and Israel, about the fact that some of us have loved ones there whom we’re very worried about, about Israel’s greater power in this conflict, and about our hope that all people in Israel/Palestine enjoy freedom, human rights, justice and peace. We had a few minutes for questions and comments. Someone asked why they were fighting. Someone asked who was right. Someone suggested that the leaders of both sides should fight each other, rather than having the people fight.
I have no easy answers to our kids’ questions, and I told them as much. I encouraged them to talk with their parents, teachers and friends and to listen to what different people have to say about what’s happening. I want them to know that people have many different opinions and ways of understanding, or trying to understand, what’s going on. I’m also available to talk to them if they want to explore their questions in more depth with me.
I hope our students will continue to develop their sense of justice, and the conviction that all people deserve to live with freedom, dignity and peace. I hope our students will also continue to develop their love of the Jewish people, and to feel connected through our Jewish values and practices to other Jews throughout history and around the globe. I hope they will become compassionate listeners to the stories of Jews and Palestinians who have faced so much violence and hatred and loss. And I hope they will reach deeply into their neshamas, souls, and kishkes, guts, to bring their compassion for people and their love of justice into their lives and their world. At Kehilla School, we’re always looking to support kids’ development along these lines.
The Kehilla community offers us lots of resources and freedoms that few Jewish religious schools enjoy. We have our Brit Shalom, which reflects our community’s commitment to pursuing nonviolent means to a just peace that honors the validity of multiple historical narratives—Jewish Israeli, Palestinian and others. We have Rabbi David’s articulate and longstanding leadership as an advocate for justice, human rights and peace for all those who call Israel/Palestine home. (His response to the recent outbreak of hostilities is here.) We have our Middle East Peace Committee, which works tirelessly on this issue, including organizing periodic community dialogues where we can think through and talk about what’s going on in Israel/Palestine and in our hearts. And we have our annual Yom Shalom / Youm Salaam at Kehilla School, when we explore the commonalities among people who call the Middle East home, even as we open ourselves to hearing the different stories people have to tell about life there.
In the coming months and years, I hope to build on this strong foundation to develop a full curriculum on Israel/Palestine that embodies the values of our community, introduces a truthful and loving narrative of the Jewish historical journey to the current situation, and opens space for Palestinian and other narratives as well. As the project moves forward, I’ll be reaching out more for your input and feedback.
I invite you to be part of the process all along the way—by letting me know what’s important to you in your child/ren’s education about Israel/Palestine, by sharing your gifts and skills as they can serve this project, and by being in conversation with me about your struggles and hopes around teaching our kids about their Jewish story, and about Israel/Palestine.