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The New Normal?

Talking to Our Children About Hate

Editor’s Note: As we went to press, media sources reported that a young American-Israeli male had been arrested in Israel in connection with the spate of bomb threats referred to in this story. This information does not mitigate the impact of these actions. Terror is terror, no matter the source or the motivation.

By Aleza Freeman

Samantha Mintz was a kindergartener at a Las Vegas elementary school when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Despite the large geographic distance, the news of this monstrous act deeply affected the bright, sensitive child and permeated her thoughts for six months. The sound of her school fire alarm made her freeze up in fear for her life.

“She took it really hard,” said Chani Mintz, mom to Samantha, now 9. “This is the first year since the shooting that she doesn’t cry and break down when an alarm goes off.”

Now in third grade, Samantha’s fears were again exacerbated by the recent surge in anti-Semitism across the nation, including bomb threats to the Jewish Community Center of Southern Nevada and swastika graffiti at a Las Vegas synagogue.

“It scared me a lot,” said Samantha Mintz, who learned about the threats, evacuations, police and bomb-sniffing dogs from her Hebrew school teacher. Samantha had trouble sleeping that night. She didn’t understand, “Why are they only picking on Jewish people?”

Instilling fear was the goal of those behind the bomb threats to JCCs, synagogues, and ADL offices around the country, according to Anti-Defamation League Regional Director Jolie Brislin. The most recent threats in March marked another in an ongoing wave of anti-Semitic threats since January. An interactive map from investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica, shows more than 300 anti-Semitic crimes reported across the United States since November 2016.

Anti-Semitism of this magnitude is out of the ordinary in the U.S., noted Brislin, who said the ADL’s regional office has also seen an increase in the bullying of students. None of the bomb threats have proven credible, but she still considers them hate crimes and said the ADL is working with local law enforcement and taking the threats seriously.

“Without a doubt, there is reason to be deeply disturbed,” she says. “This is not normal.”

The threatening telephone calls and suspicious e-mail threats are discouraging, agreed JCC of Southern Nevada Executive Director Jeffrey Metz. He said they also demonstrate the relevance and importance of work done by these organizations.

“At times like these the importance of coming together as a community is critical,” he said. “We appreciate the continued support for the work we do, and will continue to do, for and with the Las Vegas community.”

Brislin believes it is more important than ever for the Jewish community to fight their fears and speak out against hate in all forms.

“I think that may be the silver lining, if there is one,” she said. “We will come out of this stronger than we were before.”

Despite any silver lining, it’s natural for people of all ages to react to threats against their community with fear. The emotion may be especially potent for children, some of whom were among those evacuated from a Jewish school or JCC and may not completely understand the concept of anti-Semitism.

“Kids shouldn’t have to go through this,” said Chani Mintz, who serves on the board at Congregation Ner Tamid. “It’s stressful. It’s frustrating. It’s baffling. I cannot believe we are living in a time like this.”

In order to ease young minds, the ADL recommends talking to, and reassuring, children of their safety, without dismissing their concerns. The organization put together an educational resource listing five tips for discussing the threats with kids.

For example, the ADL encourages parents and educators to be alert for signs of distress in children and teens, including withdrawal, lack of interest or acting out, and fear of attending school or other community activities:

“Misinformation, rumors and bias can take place on the playground or on a smartphone, so parents and educators are encouraged to gauge what children and teens are hearing from friends and on social media.”

Children’s book distributor PJ Library also addressed the bomb threats in a recent blog post:

“Research shows that one of the best ways that we can help prepare our children to cope with discrimination and intolerance is by being open about it. When we show our children that these topics, though tough, are not taboo, we let them know that they can always come to us with questions or thoughts about life’s scary situations.”

While Samantha Mintz was understandably upset and scared for her safety when she first learned about the bomb threats, her mind was put at ease once she openly discussed the situation with her mom, asking hard questions about Judaism and anti-Semitism.

“[My mom] told me Jews always stick together and my family is always here to protect each other,” said Samantha. “I started to calm down. I understood why this is happening.”

Chani, who also has a 4-year-old daughter, was hit hard by the situation, too. Between the threats and Samantha’s worries, she originally questioned whether to send her daughter to JCC camp this summer. She even posted about her concerns on Facebook, receiving encouraging comments like, “You can’t let them [anti-Semites] win.”

Still, she wasn’t convinced it was right to put her daughter in a compromising position. The family attended a Purim carnival at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, but Chani said she was on high-alert the whole time, mentally noting the exits and looking for anything suspicious.

After talking with Samantha, though, she realized her family of four couldn’t live their lives in fear. They ended up attending a JCC event.

“We went … and sang some of the songs,” said Samantha, adding that she’s proud to be Jewish because “you celebrate way more holidays. Hanukkah is eight days long!”

All religions have fun holidays, she added, noting that the world would be a better place if people would accept each other’s differences.

“It’s kind of rude,” she said of the motivation behind the bomb threats. “To them, we’re different. To us, they’re different. Why can’t everyone be different? If everyone was … the same color, or the same religion, or everyone was a boy or everyone was a girl, this world wouldn’t be a happy, fun place to live.”

Although the Jewish community has been targeted in the recent slew of threats, Brislin warned that this type of targeting could happen to anyone and no one should be complacent.

“We have to remember whoever is behind these threats is not just targeting one group, but rather expressing their own personal bigotry against others,” she said, adding that it’s “more important than ever that we continue building coalition partners and speaking out against hate in all forms.”

“Hate against one group,” she concluded, “is hate against us all.” 

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