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.”
“My daughter is usually chatty,” says Lily. “I hear everything from her. But I think she was just so upset that to repeat what happened was not an option.” 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.
So when Lily and her family attended Shabbat services at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Friday of that week, she spoke with Rabbi Rena Rifkin, the congregation’s 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. They feel uncomfortable, but they’re not sure why,” 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, especially on the Upper West Side, 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?”
“As parents, you’re never really sure if you’re doing the right thing,” Lily admits. “It’s nice not to feel alone and to have the support of the synagogue.”
If you’re looking for a spiritual home for your family — a caring community for your children to explore their Jewish identities and become proud of their heritage — Stephen Wise Free Synagogue is the place for you. Learn more at swfs.org/enroll and sign up for an open house or info session.
*Name has been changed to protect the family’s privacy.