What to Tell Kids About Antisemitism

By Kara Baskin

Antisemitism has always existed. But the threats are drawing ever closer, and the urgency to confront this hatred is more urgent than ever. In February 2023, white supremacist groups attempted to organize antisemitic activities as part of a “National Day of Hate,” sparking terror and fear as synagogues, Jewish schools and businesses braced themselves for assault. It’s a familiar feeling. According to a new survey by the American Jewish Committee, one out of six Jewish Americans in the Northeast say they were targets of antisemitism in recent years, and 80% believe antisemitic acts have risen lately. 

So, what do we tell our kids? How do we explain these acts as something that can be interpreted and resisted, maybe even through faith? Rabbi Rachel Silverman, director of the Camp Ramah Day Camp of Greater Boston, shares ideas. 

On reading

For young kids, Silverman recommends Dr. Seuss‘s “The Sneetches and Other Stories,” an illustrated, lighter-hearted look at prejudice and how silly it is. For a less allegorical take, she likes “The Whispering Town,” a story of a Danish family who shelter a Jewish family during the Holocaust despite their neighbors’ suspicions. 

On checking in after school

“I’m a fan of using language about being an ‘upstander’ rather than a ‘bystander,’” Silverman says. “When we talk to our kids about their days, instead of just asking how school was, we can ask questions like, ‘How were you an upstander today? How were you kind today?’” 

While this might not directly relate to antisemitism or prejudice, it sets the stage for courageous behavior should the situation arise, even if it applies to something as ordinary as a spat on the playground. (And hopefully it only does.) 

On Judaism’s teachings

“The Torah reminds us many, many more times to protect the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, the most vulnerable members of our society. It tells us about this more than keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher,” Silverman says. “It’s a hard commandment to follow, but the many reminders demonstrate how important it is.” 

Leviticus 19, verse 18, teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

This might seem obvious, she says, but “the Torah includes loving one another as a mitzvah precisely because our actions don’t indicate that it is obvious for us. At times, it’s easier to keep Shabbat, make sure our weights are fair and to build a parapet around our roofs than it is to see the humanity in others. Many of the mitzvot are checklist-like; we take care of them by doing them once, or once in a while, and can check them off our list. Not so with loving one another,” she says. 

On exposing kids to differences

It’s helpful to talk about being an upstander and to explain why antisemitism is wrong. But also try to live it. Expose your kids to people who aren’t like themselves, too, whether it’s through volunteering or travel or reading. Do whatever feels comfortable for your family, but exposing them to diversity will make them appreciate their own. 

Silverman likes this quote from  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. Then I realized that it’s easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture, or creed is different from yours. That’s why the command, ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers resonates so often throughout the Bible.”

Kara Baskin is the parenting writer for JewishBoston.com. She is also a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and a contributing editor at Boston Magazine. She has worked for New York Magazine and The New Republic, and helped to launch the now-defunct Jewish Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Email her at kara@jewishboston.com.