December 14, 2023

What Our Kids Need to Be Alright

Avi Siegel Director of Teen Initiatives

If you asked me how much of my writing would have been dedicated to antisemitism (Jew-hatred) a year ago, I would have probably laughed at the question. That’s not to say that it didn’t exist a year ago (Tree of Life, Poway, Monsey, Jersey City, Colleyville). Yet, since October 7 the explosion of hate has been unparalleled. ADL’s Center on Extremism indicates that reported incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault increased by almost 400%. Let that number sink in for a second. But this rampant spread of antisemitism isn’t limited to the physical acts tallied by the ADL. It has also found a home on the social media platforms where our youth spend their time.

I have spent much time over the past two months moderating teen Hour for Israel sessions. These forums serve as safe spaces where teens can learn context, wrestle with hard emotions, and be unapologetically Jewish. They have taken place in schools, synagogues, and Jewish community centers across counties, denominations, and affiliations. The conversations are driven by the teens’ questions and concerns. Sometimes the session focuses on history and diving into the origin of conflict in the region. Other times it is veers toward the tragedy of October 7 and understanding the dynamic of the Gaza-Israel relationship. But every time they voice questions and concerns about social media and the rampant hate and antisemitism that is festering there.  

At one session held in a public school, we asked the teens what they’re seeing and hearing. One teen responded that a bathroom had the phrase “free Palestine” written across it. Another answered that their friends are posting that Israel is a colonialist and genocidal state. A third responded with someone said to her while walking through the hallways that “Jews should be treated like they were in Germany during the 1930s.” As we listened and attempted to guide their heads and hearts to understand the hate they were experiencing, what was imprinted in my mind is that being a Jewish teen, which was already hard enough, just got exponentially more difficult. 

Our teens are feeling the weight and power of having that relationship with the country and its people. It is now even more important that our homes are places where our kids feel comfortable having critical and challenging conversations. Here are 10 tips to help you help your teens: 

  1. Expand your own knowledge: Although you are not expected to know everything about Israel, you and your teens can learn some of the important facts together. Check out Unpacked Video Resources 
  2. Understand how antisemitism evolves: Unfortunately, we are not getting rid of antisemitism, but we can explain it. Watch Rabbi Sacks on the Mutation of Antisemitism 
  3. Respond to misinformation: Learn how to deal with all the information that is coming at our teens at Responding to questions and disinformation   
  4. Be smart about social media: We can’t remove our teens from it, but we can help them know when it is safe to engage and when to stay away. Learn how here Social Media Tips. 
  5. Frame the conversation: It takes some pre-work to structure the conversation in order to present manageable topics and ideas for discussion. (How to talk to your kids about Israel  
  6. Support their mental health: Helping your kids self-regulate and be aware of their own social emotional care is essential during stressful times. Here are some Activities for positive mental health.  
  7. Focus on critical thinking: Our teens should be asking themselves, who is writing this? who is the intended audience and for what purpose is this being written?  
  8. Hit the pause button: Make sure there is time away from the chatter and challenges. Once-a-week family time is more important than ever.  
  9. Be brave: Remind your teens that their responses against hate require bravery, but they also need to stay safe and be smart about when to engage and when to walk away. 
  10. Have an upstander mentality: Someone else may not step up. Be the person who says something if they see something.  

It is so important to remember that not everything is the doom and gloom that is being portrayed. The number of young adults who care about what is going on is larger than ever. The number of people who told me they want to buy a star of David is heartwarming. The teens who have never stepped into a synagogue are asking where they can go. Their social media posts are about Jewish pride and unity. We are seeing our youth stand up and speak out. Their response to hate is to show more kindness and resiliency. I know our teens will be alright.   

I welcome anyone who is interested in learning more about how to have these conversations and the ways in which we can support teens to reach out to me at asiegel@jfedgmw.org. 

Federation offers a variety of teen programs that develop leadership skills and give students opportunities to learn together with their Israeli peers. Check out all the options here.