With anti-Semitism on the rise in the United States and abroad, its effects on the Jewish community at large are deep and painful. Many feel uncomfortable expressing their Judaism in public or in general. However, the effect of anti-Semitism on children, in particular, can be especially damaging and long-lasting. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, children can be scarred and even permanently damaged by witnessing violent actions much more acutely than adults. This is because the brains of small children are not yet fully developed and therefore, many memories that they have from their formative years are deeply ingrained inside them, whether or not they are good or bad. So, if a child witnesses, or even hears about, an event such as a mass shooting or bombing, this experience can traumatize them for years if not their entire lives. As adults, they may have PTSD or other associated issues from an experience that could have happened to them decades ago.
This issue is significant for the Jewish community, where we prize the education and wellbeing of our children, as well as the notion that synagogues and JCC’s should be places of community and tranquility where children should be able to roam free of fear. We must also address this issue because if Jews cannot feel safe to express their Judaism then we will cease to exist as a people. Every time bullets fly in a synagogue or a swastika is painted over a day school, more and more Jews and particularly Jewish children feel uncomfortable being Jewish. This is how terrorists can succeed, by scaring Jewish children into not showing who they truly are. This is the fundamental challenge that anti-Semitism brings to kids. Not the bomb scares or spray paint, but the crisis of confidence that many Jewish kids feel.
For example, I attend a modern orthodox school, and my friends and I used to always wear kippot outside. But now I find in the post-Pittsburgh era of American Judaism that many of my friends only wear their religious objects inside school, transforming when they leave the building into a regular American kid. I don’t know about others, but for me, this is a truly troubling sign that should disturb Jews from all walks of life. Jewish children must be able to be Jewish freely, not just because it is a legal right, but it is also what keeps our 5000-year odyssey going. Children are the future of the Jewish people just as they have always been, and if they feel afraid or embarrassed of who they are, then the battle may be lost. This is the true effect of anti-Semitism on children.
These challenging times call for bold solutions. We need to have a conversation with Jewish kids about their Jewish identity and how to stay strong in the face of adversity and fear. We need to make them feel confident walking around with a kippah or a shirt with Hebrew writing on it. That is how you remove the scars and trauma, that is how you heal from the painful events of the past year, by doubling down on your creed, your belief. Anti-Semitism will never be able to stop the Jewish people as long as Jewish children feel free and safe to be Jews. It is that simple, and if we succeed in this, then for the Jewish people, better days lie ahead.
Yoav Shames is a sophomore at The Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan.