PJ Library helps U.S. kids learn to cope with wave of anti-Semitism


By Cathryn J. Prince The Times of Israel

NEW YORK — “What’s going on? Why are they targeting Jewish Community Centers and not mosques?” That was the question on one mother’s mind last week as she walked down the hall of JEA Savannah (the Jewish Educational Alliance, a JCC branch in Savannah, Georgia) with the center’s pre-school director Jodi Sadler.

“We are in a small town and we haven’t experienced any of the threats yet, but people watch television, the parents are seeing it, the children are seeing it,” Sadler said, recounting the conversation.

With continued reports of increased anti-Semitic incidents, parents and teachers no longer have the luxury of talking about anti-Semitism as an abstraction or something from the history books.

In recent months there have been 90 bomb threats at 73 locations — including JCCs and Jewish day schools in 30 states and one Canadian province — and acts of vandalism at two historic Jewish cemeteries. From November 9, 2016 — the day after the presidential election — through February 7, 2017 the Southern Poverty Law Center has collected 1,372 reported anti-Semitic incidents.

“Anti-Semitism of this nature should not and must not be allowed to endure in our communities. The Justice Department, Homeland Security, the FBI, and the White House, alongside Congress and local officials, must speak out, and speak out forcefully, against this scourge of anti-Semitism impacting communities across the country,” said David Posner, director of strategic performance at the JCC Association of North America.

It is because of this escalating anti-Semitism that PJ Library, best known for sending free books to Jewish children worldwide, developed a resource to help parents talk to their children about anti-Semitism. The guide includes tips from the American Psychological Association on how to talk to children as well as books parents can read with their kids.

“We realized in mid-January, after the first wave of threats, that this was a topic on a lot of people’s minds and that parents really wanted to engage around this topic. There has been a sigh of relief, the feeling of ‘I hate that I need this [the resource] but I’m so glad I have it,’” said Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.

PJ Library is one of HGF’s programs.

For children in groups that are likely to be targets of discrimination, it’s vital for parents to have ongoing, honest discussions with their children rather than shying away from the subject, according to the American Psychological Association.

“You shouldn’t skirt around the topic. You need to let kids know it’s okay to talk about, it’s something we need to address head on,” Grinspoon said. “The current climate has made a lot of parents concerned about the disruption in their children’s days. They are hearing more and seeing more [anti-Semitism] and it’s absolutely very upsetting to have to talk about it, but we try to reassure parents that we can help each other.”

So far the bomb threats have turned out to be hoaxes. Nevertheless, the incidents were frightening, said Mark Horowitz, vice president and director of the Sheva Center for Innovation in Early Childhood Jewish Education and Engagement for the JCC Association.

 “We are clearly talking and thinking about it a lot these days. People are bringing their most precious thing to us — their children — and we have a sacred bond, a commitment, to make them feel safe,” Horowitz said. “The one thing people can do is frighten us on the telephone. Because of all of this security is ramped up, but the reality is JCCs are safe. You can’t just get into our buildings.”

Before speaking with children, it’s a good idea for parents to think about their own reactions to anti-Semitism, said Susan Rona, who serves on the board of directors at the Boulder JCC. Together with the Anti-Defamation League, Rona recently organized a program about how to talk about and deal with anti-Semitism.

“You don’t want to create fear in your child, so before you have the conversation it’s a good idea to figure out what anxiety you might have,” she said.

Taking stock of one’s own fears, and getting a handle on them, can better prepare them to answer any questions their children might have, Rona said.

Where young children need brief, simple information balanced with reassurance, upper elementary and early middle school children can handle information about the school’s safety plan, according to the APA. Upper middle school and high school students may have strong and varying opinions about causes of violence in school and society.

“For me, as a parent, it’s also about preparedness. You don’t want to unduly stress your child, it [anti-Semitism] may not happen. But you want them to know if it does, it’s okay to stand up against it,” Rona said.

Parents might also find books about triumphing in the face of intolerance and discrimination helpful. Some titles include “A Time to Be Brave” by Joan Betty Stuchner, “The Time Tunnel 2: The Dreyfus Affair” by Galila Ron-Feder Amit, and “The Legend of Freedom Hill” by Linda Jacobs Altman.

For other parents, stories about how Jewish people faced and triumphed over oppression and persecution, especially as a minority group, might be helpful. Stories like Exodus, the Purim story, and the Hanukkah story, about small groups of brave individuals who band together to triumph over adversity.

“Even if you are a target, you have a voice — and having a voice is an incredible thing,” Rona said.