May 07 2022 How to Talk to Your Teen Grandchildren About Antisemitism
Many of us find joy — and feel a sense of personal responsibility — in passing down individual memories and collective legacies, and in explaining the meaning in cherished Jewish rituals and beloved family recipes. The power of Judaism is often found in its multiple entry points, and each of us has a story to pass on and a journey on which we invite our grandchildren to join us.
But there are also topics that are harder to talk about — among them, what does it mean to cultivate a love of Judaism and a strong Jewish identity in the face of rising antisemitism?
For Jewish teenagers, antisemitism is real. 2021 was the worst year for antisemitic attacks in a decade that has seen steadily increasing overall numbers of in-person and virtual incidents of antisemitism. Today’s young people are growing up in a world that calls for them to make careful choices about when and where to share their Jewish identity, more so than previous generations.
Many Jewish Gen Z-ers are proud to be Jewish and love having Judaism as a part of their multifaceted identities, yet they are also facing personal dilemmas:
Should I post about my Jewish life on Instagram or TikTok, and risk being attacked in the comments? If I talk about my Jewish youth group, will my friends automatically assume that I’m anti-Palestinian? Should I wear clothes with Hebrew and Jewish symbols in public or will people treat me differently? If I’m in a Jewish location, where are the exits? What’s my plan if something dangerous starts to happen?
As grandparents, with the honor and sacred responsibility of being role models and sounding boards for Jewish choices, values, and experiences, talking about antisemitism is a potentially intimidating topic. Should we dwell on the negatives? Should we spring into action and defend our grandkids, or push them to stand up for themselves? Should we caution them to stay quiet? How do we navigate the newest iterations of the world’s oldest hatred?
Here are 4 ways to engage with your teen grandchild about antisemitism.
Teens want to be heard. If you’re able to cultivate a relationship where they can feel comfortable sharing their evolving thoughts about antisemitism, you’re providing them with safe spaces to express fears, ask questions, and process unfolding current events with someone they trust.
Quote from a teen: Just having open conversations about the general topic would be useful — what it means to be Jewish and facing this dilemma, or even just different views on Judaism in general. If teens are treated as an equal rather than a child who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, it can strengthen the relationship and make them feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics.
It can be hard to be a listener — often, our instincts are to jump in and fix things — but being a sounding board is exactly what may be needed. If we talk too quickly, we may accidentally shut down the conversation, rather than opening it up. By listening to our teens’ questions, their hesitations about going into Jewish spaces, or their challenges around their Jewish identity, we allow them to give voice to their own emerging understandings of the world.
Of course, there are moments to take action — for example, when safety is a question or when your teen is being mistreated — but overall, our greatest role can be as a listener for their own understandings of each scenario.
2. Acknowledge your lived experiences — and your teens’.
Perhaps you’ve experienced antisemitism in your past, or in your present. Maybe it hasn’t been part of your experience of Judaism. Either way, there’s a value to the intergenerational story of this aspect of Jewish life. It can be helpful to share your experiences with your grandchildren. Whether or not these are experiences of direct antisemitism, or of making choices based on the internalized reality that there are people out there who are hostile to Jews, many of us hold the reality of being shaped by external hatreds.
Adolescents know this too, sometimes all too well. After a twenty-year downward trend, there’s a new uptick in nose jobs, attributed in part to social media’s depiction of beauty standards. While this cannot be said to be the direct result of antisemitism, perceptions of what’s pretty, and how Jews “typically” look are inevitable realities. How has your Jewish life and self-image been shaped by antisemitism? Can you relate to the pressures or dilemmas your grandchildren might be facing?
Ella, a high school student in the Northeast, described her encounters in her public school: “There were some kids going through this white male teenage Nazi phase. They’d give Hitler salutes in the hallways. But I didn’t know if I should report it. It wasn’t exactly at me, but it’s hard for it not to be at me when I’m the only Jewish person in the room.”
Without a direct complaint, it was not a priority for teachers to intervene, placing Ella and her family into a difficult situation: should she take on these bullies? Or is it easier, in the chaos of teen-hood, to let things go, not make it awkward, and simply get through the already challenging day? Grandparents might listen to their grandchildren express their feelings about such a situation and discuss ways to handle it.
3. Explore and validate Jewish choices.
Each of us has a vision of what Jewish life should look like. Maybe you’re hoping your grandchildren will replicate your Jewish choices. Maybe you’re hoping they just stay connected to Judaism. Your grandchild may want to be more discreet in their Judaism, for example, not wearing visible Jewish identifiers in public or otherwise avoiding associating with Judaism. Or they may be experiencing the opposite, and are defiantly leaning into their Judaism, displaying it loudly in spite (or because) of pushback they may receive.
When it comes to protecting themselves, either physically or emotionally, from potential hatred, there are no wrong choices. Acknowledge and support whatever Jewish choices they make and allow those actions to evolve as their understandings and the global reality do so as well.
4. Be your grandchild’s partner.
Ultimately, both you and your grandchild are on lifelong Jewish journeys that are both individual and intertwined. You have wisdom, lived experiences, and loving care to offer. They are coming of age in an unprecedented time — antisemitism is real, and on the rise, from all aspects of society: the Left, the Right, and in the literal palms of their hands via social media. Your teens are navigating how to deal with this reality, and most likely, you are too. By approaching it in partnership, creating space for their voices as well as your own, and allowing for both Jewish concerns and Jewish joy to be expressed, you can partner with them in building their Jewish lives for today and tomorrow.
Dr. Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is the author of #antisemitism: Coming of Age During the Resurgence of Hate, a deep dive into the ways that antisemitism is shaping the identities of Generation Z-ers. She is the Senior Director of Knowledge, Ideas, and Learning at the Jewish Education Project, and lives in Westchester, NY with her husband, newborn son, and two beloved rescue dogs. www.samanthavinokormeinrath.com
Special thanks to teen reviewers Hannah Gutnick and Sonja Lippmann for their expert input.
Banner photograph by Sonja Lippmann
Looking down at book photograph by Natasha Anne
Grandfather and grandchild photograph by Stephanie Fink
Teens on wall photograph courtesy of Unsplash
Teens cutting up magazines photograph by Sonja Lippmann