In celebration of our 15th wedding anniversary last June and in recognition of my upcoming “special” birthday, my wife, Rebecca, decided we should take a family trip to Israel during the 2016 December school break.
When we informed our children of our decision, Caleb, 9, a student at Hillel Day School, responded with tremendous fear: “Why are you taking us to a war zone? I don’t want to die!”
His brother, Ayal, 6, also a student at Hillel, caught on to his brother’s feelings of terror. For months, they dreaded the trip, and every time we brought it up to try to build excitement and to assuage their concerns, we were immediately rebuffed. For Caleb and Ayal, and, I would imagine, for many children, Israel is perceived as among the most dangerous places on Earth.
I wonder: In trying to teach our children to love and defend Israel, are we also teaching them to fear Israel?
I am guilty. Every Shabbat morning at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we offer a prayer for the State of Israel. And each week I introduce that prayer by referencing the most recent terrorist attack, the threats of a nuclear Iran, the latest slight by the United Nations, the forest fires or other existential threats. In trying to deepen our congregation’s love of Israel and in desiring our community to understand the need for us to further support Israel, I now realize my 9-year-old hears each week so many of the threats Israel faces.
When our schools teach Israel, we offer similar messaging. We plant trees on Tu b’Shevat to make the desert bloom. We send tzedakah to help our poor brothers and sisters in the Promised Land. We look at maps to understand the implications of the recent fires. We counted down the days until Gilad Shalit was freed. We proudly show our children pictures of young adults in camouflage preparing for battle.
Of course, these are all requisite lessons to create an educated Jewish community, but they come at a price.
Moreover, the nefarious efforts of the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement force us on the defensive. We teach our children how to defend Israel against false or misleading accusations by exposing them to those very same false and misleading accusations. The BDS movement’s efforts hold the potential to erode our children’s love for Israel and to exacerbate their fears.
Finally, we confront the reality that Israel is not fantasyland. The State of Israel is a country governed by fallible human beings who make mistakes — sometimes even grievous mistakes. We are obligated to help our children understand this reality, and we must help them as well to realize we can still love that which is imperfect.
Despite our best intentions, I worry that in our passion to teach about Israel, we are dooming our children to fear it.
The best antidote to our children’s fears is to visit Israel: through family vacations, synagogue missions, day school trips, Birthright or Federation’s Teen Mission.
There is nothing that alleviates a child’s fears about our homeland more successfully than to walk the streets of Jerusalem, to swim in the Dead Sea, to ride a camel, to eat kosher falafel, to consume sufganiyot every day of Chanukah, to hear a store clerk wish them Shabbat shalom on Friday afternoons or to try to teach the rules of American football to an Israeli child, as mine did, in Hebrew (thank you, Hillel).
In this way, our children’s firsthand experience with Israel can supersede any fears they might have previously held.
But we can also inspire a love for Israel devoid of fear by being careful with the stories we share and the songs we sing. I, for one, also will begin reconsidering how I express my own personal ahavat Tzion (love of Zion) from the bimah and in the home. In addition, I encourage other clergy members, educators, community leaders and others to be mindful of the side effects of teaching our kids to defend Israel.
In our well-intentioned desire to share our love of Israel with our children, we must realize we might be building fear as well. Therefore, let us strive more mindfully to ensure that “love” is the emotion we most strongly inculcate our children — not fear.
On our last Shabbat in Jerusalem, we visited the Kotel. I pulled my boys close and tearfully whispered to them: “I pray you will always remember this moment when you visited the Western Wall with your Eema and your Abba and that one day you will love Israel as much or even more than we do.”
Later that evening, as we packed our bags to travel from Jerusalem to the airport, we did not see Ayal. Turns out, he was in his bedroom crying because he did not want to leave … home. And, after the trip, when I asked my Caleb, who had feared for his life in visiting the Promised Land, “What do you think of Israel?” He responded, “I would go back again.”
It’s a start.
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.