Antisemitism, Teen Wellbeing & the Pedagogy of Difficult Conversations

On February 15, 2023, Moving Traditions hosted Antisemitism & Teen Wellbeing, a webinar for parents and educators of Jewish teens. Watch the recording:

These are the key takeaways and related resources from that important conversation.

Recognize that conversations about antisemitism like other difficult topics can be:
  • High risk: This often means we brace for conflict or disagreement with our teen and may have a fight, flight, or freeze response to even having the discussion
  • High stakes: Connected to issues of the safety of young people, as well as existential questions about the survival of the Jewish people
  • Challenging on an identity level: It can be hard for us to have receptivity to new information because our ideas and perspectives can seem synonymous with our identities. This makes us feel like there’s a lot to lose if we consider a different point of view.
Consider using these parameters and questions to guide your conversations:
  1. Center young people and ask yourself: What am I carrying into this conversation and what role does my teen need me to play?
  2. Try to stay grounded in what we know teens value: Social wellness (open communication, authenticity, and trust); diversity and inclusion; and respect for the complex identities that they and their peers hold. Recognize that some of these core values may be in tension for teens – for example, diversity and inclusion could be in tension with authenticity.
  3. Notice and acknowledge discomfort: This conversation might bring up some feelings and discomfort for you and for your teens. Antisemitism is an uncomfortable topic! Notice and name these feelings.
  4. Visit others’ opinions: Prepare yourself to “visit” your teens’ ideas, understandings, and experiences related to antisemitism even if you don’t see eye to eye. Begin by seeking to understand rather than to judge or convince.
  5. What do you know about the differences in political views between you and your teen? What is your level of tolerance for these differences? Do you want to explore your disagreements? In what way and with what goals? 
If your teen tells you they have experienced antisemitism, consider the following steps:
  1. Assess the situation with them to determine if there is immediate danger.
  2. Ask them what ideas they have about how they want to respond, and, what they want and need from you to do so.
  3. Consider referring to the frameworks below to help them identify what was problematic and what they want to respond to.
  4. Consider carefully whether you want to share from your own experience/or the experience of a friend, a time you experienced antisemitism or another form of oppression or discrimination and took action, and a time you experienced this and chose not to do anything. Are there lessons or stories you can share in a way that will help teens explore options without experiencing pressure or judgement.  
If a teen tells you that they have experienced exclusion but are not sure if its antisemitism:

The majority of the teachers, administrators, and other adults in teens’ lives are probably not intentionally antisemitic. That said, wanting to do the right thing isn’t always the same as doing the right thing. Impact is not the same as intention. If your teen is confronting a situation where their Jewish practice, for example, is not being respected or believed by a teacher or coach, discuss the options of how to approach this with your teen. Be open about how you have resolved tensions between deciding to assume the best intent of people who do things like scheduling meeting on Rosh Hashanah, versus assuming that they are sending a message about their values of inclusion and valuing of Jews. Engage teens in exploring how one’s assumptions impact decision-making in how to approach people. Consider the personal cost and benefit of taking on educating others about Judaism and about what one specifically needs from allies and supporters – and why. Make it clear that it’s also okay to decide that sometimes one needs to walk away and set boundaries rather than engaging in self-advocacy.

If the incident warrants additional support, know that you are not alone. You can reach out to the Anti-Defamation League, your local Jewish Community Relations Council/Jewish Federation, a local Jewish social justice organization, and/or your local Mayor’s office.

Learn more about different frameworks for understanding antisemitism.

Open yourself to the possibility that the teen(s) in your life may not share your framework for understanding antisemitism. Begin by exploring these yourself and clarifying what resonates for you and if applicable your parenting partner. How do these frameworks align with your current understanding of antisemitism?  How do they challenge you to think about antisemitism in a new way?

You may then want to share these with teens in your life or with a youth advisor, clergy member, camp director, teacher or other adult in your teens’ life.

  • Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l
  • “Jews are often attacked for who we are, not how we pray.” – excerpt from Project Shema’s guide to understanding antisemitism
  • “Antisemitism is like the boggart in Harry Potter – it shapeshifts, has contradictory elements, and fits the zeitgeist; the Jews become what people fear or hate most.” – Ben Freeman, author of Jewish Pride
  • “To understand antisemitism, one needs to understand how oppression operates. That begins with understanding what power is. Power can be defined as the ability to act and the ability to create, control, or prevent change.  Oppression is prejudice + power (disliking someone based on an unchangeable characteristic + the ability to act on it). Antisemitism is one form of oppression that manifests itself in unique ways.” – Beckee Birger, Director of Kumi
Create more contexts for Jewish joy.

Antisemitism and sometimes the adult discourse around it can cause many teens to feel disconnected or even ashamed of their Jewish identities. Adults can help by inviting teens to meaningfully connect to and cultivate joy and pride in their Judaism. This could look like celebrating Jewish holidays and rituals, having a regular Shabbat dinner as a family, exploring Jewish history, culture, and peoplehood across the world, or sharing what you love or admire about Judaism.

Other questions to consider and discuss:
  • If you think about your Jewish identity like an iceberg with some aspects above water and many under the surface, which aspects of the iceberg are most prominent?
  • Have you ever been in situations where an aspect of your identity felt like it was the target of antisemitism?
  • How does antisemitism today compare with how you have thought about antisemitism in the past?

Additional Resources: