How We Empower Religious School Students in the Face of Antisemitism

For as long as we have been in the field of Jewish education, parents have asked similar questions. Will my child learn to speak Hebrew? (Spoiler alert: probably not). Will my child be ready for bar or bat mitzvah? (Almost certainly, yes) What is the relevance of what they are learning to their real lives? (A great deal.)

Rarely, though, were we ever asked about preparing their children to deal with antisemitism in their lives.

But things have changed. This is now a common question from all corners of our community, from parents to grandparents, to concerned congregants, asking what we are doing to prepare our children and teens for the rising tide of incidents, large and small, directed against the Jewish people.

We face a couple of challenges, which will be familiar to anyone who works in a synagogue setting: We find that many of our students are overworked, stressed, burnt-out, and facing antisemitism from a young age – oftentimes before their Jewish identities are fully formed. But as Jewish educators, we see our students only once a week, for somewhere between one and two hours depending on their ages.

What can we do?

Here is what we have learned – through research, professional development, and some trial and error – in trying to balance building our students’ Jewish identities and preparing them for the changing world around us.

1. First and foremost, our job as Jewish educators is to teach our students pride in who they are, both as Jews and as human beings.

When are students are younger, we want to give them a deep love of Judaism and the Jewish people, along with a strong attachment to their rabbis, cantors, and teachers. That way, when the time comes to add layers of difficulty and complexity, they will already feel an unwavering sense of Jewish connection that cannot be broken.

We want our students to feel pride in who they are as Jews – to know what they are fighting for, not just what they are fighting against.

2. We give students access to the experts.

We begin our work by ensuring that our teachings are informed by experts, turning to the people who have been paying critical attention to this issue for a long time – writers such as Bari Weiss, Yair Rosenberg, and Deborah Lipstadt.

We give our students as much access to those experts as possible, whether by bringing them into our classrooms as speakers or by sharing and discussing their books and articles and working through their theories and ideas together in class, both in smaller groups and through one-on-one conversations.  

3. We teach students where their support systems are.

No one should feel that they need to respond or fight alone. We’ve received countless calls from college students with graffiti on their dorms, as well as from the mother of a student who found a swastika etched on a bathroom door in a bookstore, and we’ve heard of innumerable incidents of casual antisemitism among our middle and high school students.

Every time, we remind them that their synagogue is a support system when they are facing hate. We know we cannot stop antisemitism, but we remind them of the importance of community in difficult moments. We can connect them to resources and to others in the community who have experienced similar things; we can be a place of support to talk or explore responses.

By creating strong connections between students, teachers and clergy, students know they have a place to turn when they need help.  

4. We teach the definition and roots of antisemitism.

Students cannot properly respond if they can’t first identify what antisemitism is.

We want our students to learn both the history and the century-old tropes so often directed against Jews – not to scare them or to get them to see antisemitism around every corner but to help them respond where they are, in the moments when they do see it, so that it doesn’t continue to escalate.

5. We present our students with real-life scenarios and ask them to role-play their responses.

Our goal is to create students who are upstanders – who stand up for themselves and for others around them when they see injustice.

That means that, to ensure that our students have a safe place to process and debrief what is happening around them, our educators have to be responsive to what is happening in the world and be willing to drop their planned lessons to address something that comes up unexpectedly.

This goes beyond special seminars or simply bringing current events into the classroom. It is real-time rapid response to our rapidly changing world.

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One final word: We can’t reach the students who don’t show up.

When parents ask me what they can do to support our work, the number-one thing I suggest is to send their children to religious school, not just through b’nei mitzvah but all the way through senior year of high school.

The post-b’nei mitzvah years are incredibly important both to forming students’ Jewish identity and community. As they grow older and more mature, though, they benefit from the additional time to learn tools and approaches to combatting anti-Semitism.

We can do a lot, even in a short period of time – but we can’t do it without our students.

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Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal is the director of youth and family education at Central Synagogue in New York, N.Y.. Merissa Hochberg is the director of Central Synagogue’s Lese Center for Living Judaism, and Amanda Phillips is the assistant director, grades 7–12.