After the horrific events of October 7, Jewish educators around the country had to quickly figure out how to address the war in a way that prioritized social emotional needs of students while also supporting our brethren in Israel. As a principal in a school that caters to children from nursery through eighth grade, I found this to be a daunting task. Parents made their own decisions about what was appropriate to share with their children; but that meant that come Monday, we would not know who knew what and how much they were impacted by the massacre and ensuing war. We had to create a haven, where our children felt safe, but also had an outlet to express their fears or ask their questions.
We came up with protocols for each grade and prepped our teachers. During the first days and weeks, we did not mention the war to our youngest elementary school children. We expressed our love for Israel and appreciation for the chayalim, but did not go into details about the current events. The war was discussed with the older elementary school grades, but even then, we were so careful about what was shared and how it was discussed. As we continue to live through the war, we are each impacted in different ways and as parents and educators, we feel responsible for making sure that our children feel safe and in ways are sheltered from the devastation of the war in Israel as well as the increased antisemitism in our own neighborhoods. We protect them from the hatred that we have seen, because even as adults, it is terrifying to think that such hatred can be excused or protected by freedom of speech. If it is difficult for adults to process such atrocities, it would be foolish to think that our children are equipped to do so.
However, as Chanukah approaches, we teach our students the story of Chanukah. We teach them about Antiochus who wanted the Jews to assimilate and prevented them from practicing their Judaism in public. We then tell how the Greeks defiled our most holy of places, the Beit Hamikdash. Wisely, we skip over the gory details of what happened when the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed and jump to the heroics of the Maccabees and the clean up when we re-entered the Beit Hamikdash and searched for oil. Miraculously, we found one small jug which should have lasted only for one day, but ended up burning for eight; hence the miracle of Chanukah. We tell this story to young children, but never think about what we are really telling them—the Greeks wanted to destroy us because we are Jews and they were able to desecrate our holiest site, destroying everything that we held dear to us.
On Purim, once again, we proudly tell our young children that Haman hated us because we are Jews and wanted to kill all of us. I remember when my children were toddlers and I took them to a children’s Purim Puppet Show. The Haman puppet leaned close to the audience and yelled at the kids, “Jews! You are Jews! I hate the Jews!” My children were terrified and we walked out of the show, yet they still learned the story of Haman and how he was hanged on a tree with his sons. These are not typical themes for children’s stories yet we share them with our children.
On Pesach, we emphasize that we were slaves because we were Jewish and Pharaoh wanted to get rid of us. We tell our children all about the ways that Pharaoh tried to stop us from expanding our population and we even tell our young children how he had all of the baby boys thrown into the Nile. We then teach about the 10 terrible plagues that happened to the Egyptians—even though we sing songs about the plagues like the frog song or the makot song, we are describing frightening events. The last plague is the death of the firstborn; if you are a firstborn, you might be worried that it could have happened to you. We were then chased by the Egyptian army, who were drowned by Hashem, and we were miraculously saved. Such a movie would be rated PG-13, yet we tell these stories to our young children.
When we really think about these stories, they are quite terrifying and too close to home right now. People hate us simply because we are Jewish. Thankfully, each of the holiday stories ended in victory and survival. I now wonder how parents at the time of the Maccabees, or Queen Esther or even Moshe helped their children feel safe as these events unfurled. How did they share the events of their time in a way that allowed their children to remember what happened, but still move on with pride and confidence in being Jewish.
We don’t think twice about telling these stories to our children since they are the basis for the holidays. What messages are our children taking from these stories? Are they scared by them or do they even understand what the stories are truly about? Are they so used to the stories that they don’t process what actually happened? We all grew up with these stories. Maybe we just saw these historical events as stories that happened long ago, and did not make connections to our own lives.
I am not recommending that we stop telling these stories. However, this year, we may need to be more sensitive as we tell the stories. Our children may make connections between the Chanukah story and what is going on in their lives and we should be prepared to help them process what they are feeling.
Like our ancestors, we are living through very challenging times. This Chanukah , we too may sympathize a bit more with the plight of the Jews in Jerusalem. May we be inspired by their stories to have trust in Hashem that we too will be victorious!
Naomi Maron is the elementary school general studies principal at Ben Porat Yosef.