A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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How some St. Louis educators are talking about war in Israel

Patty Bloom

On Monday, Raquel Scharf-Anderson, head of school at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, spent part of her day talking to fourth and fifth graders about the war that broke out in Israel on Saturday after Hamas invaded the Jewish state in a surprise attack. Students in grades 6, 7 and 8, were having a similar conversation, though more age and developmentally appropriate given that they are older, with middle school social studies teacher Kevin Parentin.

On Tuesday, Scharf-Anderson found herself in front of the school’s third graders, talking to them about the war.

“I did so because they were talking about it, and I’d rather they get information from me,” she explained. “I shared with them that there is a war, but depending on the grade I gave different details. So I called them Hamas with fourth and fifth graders but with the third graders, I said they were terrorists. We talked about the word terror and terrible and what does that mean. Then we talked a little about what’s going on in Israel not in a rosy way but also not too graphic.”

The conversations that Scharf-Anderson and Parentin were having with students at Mirowitz mirror many that are going on throughout the country as Jewish educators grapple with how best to discuss the grave situation in Israel with students, especially elementary and middle schoolers. Many have relatives in Israel, some of whom have been reported murdered or missing, others who are serving in the military or have been called up, and educators want to be sensitive to that. They also want their schools to be a safe space for students to learn, as well as one where they can feel comfortable discussing difficult subjects.

Rabbi Shmuel Miller, head of school at Epstein Hebrew Academy, said he, as well as several teachers, have been having discussion with students in each grade about Israel, but keeping it very simple with those in the lower grades.

“I just finished having conversations with middle schoolers today where we talked about what was going on in Israel, their feelings, their fears, clarifying misconceptions,” said Miller. “When it comes to early childhood, we’re doing nothing. But in kindergarten and first grade, I came in and in very general terms said it was time for us to think about people living in Israel that need our love and we’re going to sing a song that brings the Jewish people together. Kindergarten was pretty much OK with singing but in first grade one kid said, ‘Oh yeah, people are dying.’ So we focused on that we are part of the Jewish people and Israel needs our support.

“In second and third grade, we had a whole session that one of the teachers did — what is war, what does it mean, what does it mean when someone doesn’t like us, what do we do, how do we feel?”

Miller said a second grader and a fourth grader each has a relative who was a victim of the war. He also said that many of the students wanted to do something to help, so, for example, second and third graders are now writing letters to Israeli soldiers.

Students at Torah Prep School of St. Louis are also writing letters to soldiers as well as making short videos for them to offer encouragement and support. Rabbi Yossi Golombeck, principal of the boys’ division, grades 2-8, said while students are aware that “our brothers and sisters in Israel are in danger,” the focus has been on what the boys can do proactively to help the Israeli people.

“There are different things that different kids are taking on. We call it kabollos –to accept upon yourself,” said Golombeck, adding “we’re encouraging the kids to accept something small they can do that can be a source of merit for the soldiers.” These include reciting certain prayers, more acts of kindness, being more inclusive.

“We’re trying to build awareness. We want the kids to understand they can make a difference, that a small, good deed here in St. Louis could help save someone’s life 7,000 miles away,” said Golombeck. “We’re doing it with the intent that God will then take the merits of those good deeds, those extra mitzvot, and they will make a difference and trigger a better and more positive outcome for the land and people of Israel.”

After her conversations with the third, fourth and fifth graders, Scharf-Anderson sent a detailed letter home to parents summarizing the meetings. She explained how the children were assured of their safety and provided examples of some of their questions, and her responses, such as:

  • Question: How did they (Hamas) get there? Answer: There was a very high wall that they broke, and blasted security that allows Israel to see, used motorized devices to come in by air. After things are settled back down, the people who study security in Israel will go back and study where the problem was to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Like we do here at school, first we have to fix the problem then we go back and deal with how it happened.
  • Question: Who will win the war? Answer: Even when wars are successful in their mission, there are really no winners because so many people are harmed by them. W hope that by the time you are grown up we will have figured out how to get along, and maybe your brains can help figure that out.

Scharf-Anderson said she had no plans to talk to the youngest of children as a group but was available to any who wanted to talk individually. As an empathetic educator, she is well aware that not only do youngsters need guidance navigating “scary and dangerous matters like war,” but some parents also appreciate help when it comes to discussing these matters with their children.

“Right now, I’m writing an article for parents on what visuals are out there on social media and how to deal with such graphic and horrific things that are being shown. Because our parents need that — this is a first-time experience for them as well,” she said. “We work in partnership with our parents and hope that by sharing with them ways to talk to their children about this war, being available to our parent body as well as providing them information about addressing social media, it allows us to work together in raising bright, wonderful children.”

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