Voices from the Field
As a parent, I struggle with the need to solve the world’s problems for my children. And if not solve, then at least explain, dissect, make them fit into neat little boxes that can be understood. This is how it all makes sense, I want to be able to reassure them. This is how I can promise you that nothing will happen that I can’t make sense of for you.
As an educator, I know my sole task is not to provide my students with answers.
In the past weeks, I’ve alternated between trying to shield my children from the news and struggling not to explain it away with charts and maps and impassioned pleas.
This is what I’ve learned.
I need to listen better. My children are not worried about the same things I am. They have fears that are sometimes simpler and sometimes far more complicated. Our conversations about the current situation in Israel are most successful when they begin with what they want to know and not what I want to tell them.
I need to take their questions at face value and not make assumptions. When my son was four, he saw a picture in a children’s bible about the moment when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac. He made us tell him the story. When we got to the part where Abraham raised the knife, about to sacrifice Isaac, he stopped us in horror. “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” he barged in. And we cringed, terrified to explain to him the unexplainable. “Where did he get the knife?” While my husband and I had expected him to ask the adult question, “How could Abraham kill his son?” Jonah’s four-year old mind was focused on a much more concrete question.
I need to be a model for them of caring and action. Truthfully, sometimes my kids are not interested by what’s going on in Israel. They are at camp, hanging out with their friends, unbothered by politics and fighting and war and heartbreak, and that’s not a bad. Sometimes my job is to help them care about what’s going on halfway around the world. Not to scare them, but to help them connect to their cousins and relatives living in Israel, to the people they don’t know who make up the Jewish people, the ordinary people of the area. By showing them how I care, they learn to care. They see me emailing friends and sending letters to members of the Israeli army, and they learn it’s important. We talk about the organizations we send aid to, the way we lend our support. This goes far beyond this period in time. Israel is always a part of our lives in America, and therefore it’s a part of theirs too.
I need to reassure them. My kids have Israeli aunts and uncles, first cousins, some of whom serve in the IDF, and friends whose families are all still there. They want to make sure they are OK. Letting them talk to their cousins, write notes and see that while life is very difficult in some parts of the country, in a lot of the country life is also going on as usual with summer camps and ballet classes and ice cream. Yes that life is interrupted by sirens and there’s a lot of fear. But Israel is not just a country on a map. It’s a land filled with people and stories, and often I turn to the stories of real people to help them understand why I’m concerned, why this is important to us as a family and as the Jewish people.
I need to do a better job of controlling what they see and hear on the media. My children watch TV and go onto the computer on their own, and they have a lot of freedom in those areas. I’m not interested in hiding information from them, but much of what they may see, particularly online and on the news, is both disturbing and often not accurate. For that reason, I’ve asked them to allow me to be their curator for information they are looking for and for them to come to me when they hear information about the situation. Together we can find information they are curious about and I can show them how I look for stories on various news sources to get a fuller picture.
Some children may need more in all these areas. There have been a few wonderful articles and websites dedicated to talking with children about hard topics:
- eJewish Philanthropy: Israel: Not a Time for Zealotry Or Shyness With Children by Cyd Weissman
- Educators for Social Responsibility: Talking with Children about Violence
- Jewish Education Center of Cleveland: “Responding to Crisis”
Talking with Your Children
- Ask yourself: What do you want them to know about what is going on, and how do you want them to feel afterward? While it seems obvious, it’s something I often fail to remember before launching into a hard topic, along with how much information I’m comfortable sharing with them.
Start with what they want to know
- Whether or not you want them to know anything, chances are they’ve seen/ heard about what’s going on.
- Ask them what they’ve heard and correct anything that is erroneous.
- Ask if they have any questions, anything that they are wondering about. The things that scare us are often the things that our children’s brains protect them from discovering.
For Older Children: The Conflict and the Media
We live in a time where sadly, chances are our children are learning far more about what’s going on in Israel from the news than from any other source.
In an ideal universe, we’d have the ability to monitor what they see and what they have access to. Ideally, we’d have the ability to curate the information we want them to see, being mindful of perspective and appropriateness.
Because there are images that are hard to forget, that our children shouldn’t have to see.
And because whether it’s the stories they read, the pictures they see, the video they are exposed to, the fact that it’s on a reputable news source makes it hard to contradict. For the most part, our children are told to trust the news: that our reporters and columnists are committed to journalistic integrity and unbiased storytelling. As adults, we know that this isn’t always the case.
We know that while sometimes the news is an accurate portrait:
It is by definition incomplete: Ask your children: Which points of view are missing from it? Can you think about perspectives you aren’t seeing, opinions you aren’t hearing?
It can be biased. Whether because specific news providers have their own biases or just due to ignorance, there is often a majority of images and stories from one point of view – often the one that will score more viewers.
Show your children this interview from CNN, where Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer points out the glaring omissions from CNN’s reporting
It can be incorrect due to the speed at which content is being reported
- Ask your children: if you are responsible for the best up-to-date content, can you see how reports might come out before they’ve been verified?
It can be incorrect because reporters are not experts in every subject they cover.
- Show your children the video segment where Hillary Clinton uses her vast experience in the State Department and in the Senate. As the article points out, while the rebuttal to Jon Stewart’s original diagnosis of the situation in Gaza received 10,000 Facebook shares, Jon Stewart’s report was seen 700,000 times: http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/179536/watch-hillary-clinton-vs-jon-stew...
It is sometimes deliberately creating misinformation by using old photos, carefully cropped photos and information they know to be wrong.
- While this is the least pleasant topic, it’s thankfully the easiest one to demonstrate. There have been a number of examples on social media of people using photographs from Syria or previous conflicts and calling them current victims.
- Talk with your children about being careful about what they repost and question the pictures they see. Here is a great article about the issue: http://www.timesofisrael.com/gazaunderattack-spreads-false-photos/
Encourage your children:
- To talk with you about what they see/ hear.
- To look at a variety of sources if a segment seems one sided.
- To be savvy media consumers.
- To be careful in reposting articles/ videos that may be proved to be inaccurate later.
However you choose to approach talking with your children and teens, if you’re committed to listening and keep an open channel of communication, you will make an important impression. And while some conversation will go better than others, these moments are part of a long timeline of conversations, and there’ll always be bumps in the road. I find every time I admit I don’t know an answer, every time I commit to my children to do the best to find the answers they’re looking for, they come back with more questions.
Natalie comes to the iCenter from The PJ Library®, where she created and led the book and manuscript selection process over the last 5 years. Prior to that, Natalie was the founder of Sippurim: Israel Books for Kids, a nonprofit aimed at developing new books for American children that take place in Israel. While Natalie claims that everything she knows in life she learned as a result of reading children’s books, she does understand that there are many ways to educate and inspire connections. Natalie has a BA from McGill University in Montreal and a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011) is not a book about education, but it is a compelling instructive work about how we make decisions. He posits two co-existent systems of thought within every person: one that is fast, intuitive and emotional and a second that is slow, deliberative and rational. In the current highly-charged atmosphere that suffuses any conversation about Israel, it is all too easy to get sucked into thinking fast, in a word ‘tweeting’, which not only limits the number of characters, it also engages emotion at the expense of reason.
Everyone is partial, in both senses of the word. We are all biased and we only see part of the truth. In the intuitive frenzy of fast thinking, it is incumbent on those of us who purport to be teachers to slow down, to be the non-anxious presence in the room, and to engage in deliberative, rational analysis. As always, this is an imperfect process because we are limited human beings. Nevertheless, we should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
“In war, truth is the first casualty” (Aeschylus). Once again truth has died. The State of Israel is at war with Hamas. No one knows the whole truth. No one is objective. Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves and to our students to teach our story, to tell our truth and to create a safe space for others to do the same, even when, and perhaps especially when the truths conflict. A war of words is better than a war of swords and their contemporary lethal counterparts. It is precisely when no one knows answers that teachers have a responsibility to raise questions. It is precisely when people have a tendency to tell others what to think and do that teachers have a responsibility to tell stories and listen to the stories of others.
In Jewish time, we are now in the Three Weeks that are bracketed by the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, three weeks punctuated by tragedies, elegies, and painfully this year, eulogies. We are in a valley as a people, and we are instructed how to behave when we are in a valley, (Psalm 23) to walk through it, not to run around it or to dwell in it, not to deny it but rather to defy it by moving resolutely through it. As teachers, when we face the challenging task of engaging our students, our campers, our children, and our colleagues, we should be guided by the following strategies:
- Make it personal. Humanizing the casualties is critical. Real people have made the ultimate sacrifice. Tell a few of their life stories.
Yesterday, July 29th on ynet there is a picture/story of a final hug between a soldier who was killed and the love of his life. They hugged for half an hour and the photographer was captivated by the story it told. A few days later the same photographer was assigned to the soldier’s funeral. When the girlfriend learned of the coincidence, she asked the photographer to send her the hugging picture. It was the last hug and now a lasting memory.
I remember reading the obituaries of the people murdered on 9/11 so that they would not be statistics. I find myself doing the same thing with every Israeli soldier killed in the Gaza War. As painful as it may be, it would be worse to desensitize myself by mistaking numbers for people.
- Make it personal. There are heroic individuals and institutions that are helping surviving relatives and supporting businesses that have suffered enormous losses.
- Get news from multiple sources, not only those with which you agree and reinforce your opinions.
- Timing is practically everything. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. There is a time for debate. There is a time for dialogue. There is a time for war, and there is a time for peace.
What time is it now? I believe it is time to think slow, refrain from reacting instantaneously to every picture, every article, and every story and instead to examine the arc of our history. We are at an ugly moment, a nadir in Israeli and Jewish time, once again fighting a war Israel did not want, once again witnessing anti-Semitism in European countries, once again being held to an ethical standard that on one hand should make us proud and on the other make us scared. We have been here before. Despite the refrain “never again”, we revisit this time and place again and again. We have tried powerlessness, and that strategy is no longer an option. It remains to be seen how it is possible to be powerful and ethical at the same time. This balance has yet to be mastered by any people, and now the state and people of Israel are once again in its pursuit. Think slow and we may succeed, not only on the battlefield, but also at home.
Jan Katzew serves as Director of Service Learning at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati. Prior to his move to Cincinnati, Jan served as a lead specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism, where his primary focus was Jewish learning. Jan is a rabbi and he earned his doctorate at Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and Education. His relationship to Israel is more personal than professional and more emotional than intellectual. Nevertheless, he has a deep and longstanding commitment to Israel engagement for Jews at all ages, stages, and settings.
Responding to rapidly unfolding events as educators requires tending both to our students and to ourselves. In this short essay, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, founder and director of Hillel's Ask Big Questions initiative, outlines three important questions to consider--for our own minds and hearts, and for those of our students. Resposted from Huffington Post
The Overwhelming Sea of Information
Maybe you've experienced this, too: In the last few weeks, with teens abducted and murdered, a retaliation murder, rockets flying, bombs dropping, and a ground war raging in Israel and Gaza, I have felt awash in information. My Facebook feed, my Twitter feed, my email inbox, dozens--dozens!--of online newspapers, blogs and magazines, all dripping out pieces of information, stories, images, and videos.
We live in the Too-Much-Information Age, when it seems like the more information we have, the less we can find or develop informed opinion, context and knowledge.
Between the military situation, the political situation, the media coverage, and the lives of my friends and family, I find it hard to be quiet enough to deal with my personal situation. To ask myself: How do I feel about all of this? How do I understand what I choose to read and what I don't? For whom do I feel more sympathy and empathy? And for whom less? And why?
It's overwhelming. It makes me feel as though it's impossible to know what's really going on, or to make informed judgments. It leads me to be skeptical of everything I read or see because everyone is telling their "story" from their own point of view. And it makes it really hard to be quiet long enough to let myself feel the complex emotions that all of this noise creates.
So: What can we do?
Step 1: Stop
So take a minute and prepare. Go ahead--turn it off. I'll still be here when you come back.
Ready? Okay--now, read the rest.
Step 2: Three Good Questions
The novelist Ursula LeGuin wrote, "There are no right answers to wrong questions." Responsible education, responsible leadership, and frankly responsible personhood, begins with taking the time to carefully consider the questions we're asking.
To begin to make some order of the chaotic mixture of information, opinion, and emotion, I suggest there are three main types of questions to consider:
- Clarifying Questions (i.e., What do we know? What do we think we know?)
- Interpretive Questions (i.e., What is the meaning of what we know? What story do we tell about what we know?)
- Reflective Questions: (e.g., How do we feel--about our knowledge, our stories, the world, and ourselves?)
Separating questions this way can help us disentangle the web, and help us stay afloat, and even find a course, in the sea.
Clarifying Questions: What do we know? Or, What do we think we know?
This may be the hardest question of all. The truth is very few of us have a clear sense of the totality of the facts of this war, or of any situation. There are simply too many people--too many places, too many actions, too much information--for any of us to know what is happening with certainty. We know that people are suffering and being injured, physically and emotionally. We know that people are dying. But beyond these certainties, it's hard for any of us to feel firm in our knowledge of facts.
So we have to treat our information as provisional, not certain. We need to separate that which is clearly opinion, propaganda, or sensationalism, from good, reliable information. Wherever possible, we should be looking for information from multiple sources that strives to be objective, data-driven, and empirical, without first coming to conclusions.
Finding that kind of information is hard, especially when we know that all information takes shape against the backdrop of a narrative colored by subjective lenses. So we have to do our best, and we have to operate with the knowledge that the information we have is probably incomplete, and should be subject to alteration or refutation.
Interpretive Questions: What stories do we tell about what we think we know?
Each piece of information we take in contributes to the story we tell about reality. A lot of the time, that process flows in the opposite direction--we process information in a way that confirms the story we are already telling. (We can't even agree if it's a "war" [as the foreign media call it], an "operation" [Israeli media], or an "invasion" [much Arab media]. These word choices themselves are a key element of storytelling.) So we have to be aware of the stories we tell about the information we consume.
It doesn't mean we stop telling stories, but it does mean we're aware of the dynamic taking place, and that we have to be open to modifying, coloring, and reshaping our story. Just as we must take a provisional approach to our acquisition of knowledge, we need a provisional approach to our interpretive questions. In other words, we need to regard the conclusions we draw and the interpretations we make with a grain of salt. We have to maintain an awareness that our knowledge interacts with our story, and to remember that this is true of other people as well.
Finally, this means that we can and should try to listen to other people's stories--to understand how they view the same information we do and why they may look at things differently from us. Again, that doesn't mean giving up on our own narrative; but it does mean being open to listening.
Reflective Questions: How do we feel--about our knowledge, our stories, the world and ourselves?
The first two questions are ones I think many of us are aware of and probably think and talk about a lot. This last question is one that I think we need to spend more time on. With the givens that a.) We don't know everything, and b.) Our knowledge is framed in a story we tell, we can ask c.) How do we feel about it? How do we feel about what we think we know? How do we feel about the story? How do we feel about the world we inhabit, and about ourselves as its inhabitants?
Those feelings will often be complicated, contradictory, and intense. Too often we don't give ourselves the space to feel those feelings, acknowledge them, hold them, and share them. (For the educators reading: this applies equally to us as educators who have our own complex emotions, as David Bryfman notes, and to our students.) We need to give ourselves the time and space to check in with our own emotions, to identify and name what we're feeling. We need spaces among and for ourselves to reflect on those feelings (and for the educators again: we need to create those spaces for the students we serve).
On an individual level, that means giving ourselves the permission to be quiet for a while, to hear the still small voice. That can involve disengaging from social media for a bit, taking time to meditate or pray, having a conversation with a close friend, or whatever else you do to check in with yourself.
On a group or communal level, the recipe for those spaces involves some simple ingredients: commitment to confidentiality, non-judgment, speaking in the first-person, openness to sharing and listening. And asking the right question: not, "What do you think is going on?" Or, "What do you think about what's going on?" But, "How do you feel about what's going on?" Note the first two versions focus on cognitive dimensions (what do you think) while the third focuses on the emotional or affective (how do you feel). These are small but powerful word-choices--and they make an enormous difference.
Understand others, understand yourself
The questions I've laid out here are rooted in some time-tested practices of personal and group reflection, like Quaker clearness committees, Jewish musar, and American pragmatism, many of which developed in response to the sense among people generations ago that the modern world--even then--was overwhelming in information. Things have only gotten faster, more immediate, and more complicated since.
If we are to make sense of the world for ourselves, and if we are to share it with others--both of which, it seems to me, we have no choice but to do--then we need to have clear minds and open hearts. In a time like the one we're living in now, that can seem really hard. But these moments of great challenge are also moments of great opportunity--moments of learning, about ourselves and others.
As Big Bird reminds my young son in the morning, "Asking questions is a good way to find things out." Learning begins with asking questions, and good learning begins with asking good questions. If we want to learn, if we want to better understand others and ourselves, if we want to build a world of greater empathy and eventual peace, we need to formulate our questions with care, and listen attentively to the people who answer them.
Josh is the founder educational director of Ask Big Questions, an initiative of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, that trains students to facilitate reflective community conversation about questions that matter to all of us. From 2005-2011, Josh served as the Campus Rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel. A 1998 graduate of Yale University with a B.A. in Music, Josh thought he was going to be an orchestra conductor (and was, in college) until he spent a year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and fell in love with Torah study. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2005. He is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University, focusing on the place of history and memory in the work of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.