How Should I Speak to My Children About this War?
Last Monday night, he told us the story...
Until Simchas Torah, Guy and his family lived in Kfar Maimon. Since that awful day, that have temporarily relocated to the Ramada Hotel in Yerushalayim, along with hundreds of residents of the South.
His family's story begins much the same as everyone else. Everything was OK until 6:30am on Shabbos morning... and then everything changed:
Like most residents in the area, we don’t have guns. Our communities are safe. Of course, we have bomb shelters. We're used to hearing sirens and running for cover. But no-one needs to carry a weapon – it wouldn't help; you can't shoot a rocket out of the air. Until that morning, we thought we were safe.
Many of us woke up to the sounds of furious gun fire. We ran to the safe room, and I began calling the local security team, army hotlines and police to find out what was happening. It didn't take long to understand that Kfar Maimon would be infiltrated, but I had no idea as to the scale of the attack. The only thing I knew was that we were minutes away from terrorists walking coming through our streets.
My wife and I have four children. Two big boys, twenty and eighteen years old; and thirteen-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.
With all the fear and adrenaline, I debated if I should tell my family what was happening. How does a father turn to his family and explain that no-one was coming to save us. The army was hours away. My mind started racing – how do I prepare my family for this battle. We have no guns. What if the terrorists come in our home? Should I tell my children that this might be our last day alive?
I called over the two older boys. I began to tell them – gently – about what was happening. They didn't need my hesitation: “Abba, we have phones. We already know what's going on. Just tell us what to do. What's the plan?”
My army training kicked in, and we analyzed our environment. The weakest point in our home is the large glass doors. I knew that if the terrorists would try to enter, it would be from there. There is no way to barricade it, so we prepared to fight.
My oldest, the twenty year old, is a scuba diver. We had no weapons or ammunition, but he has a harpoon. He stationed himself directly across from the large window. Myself and my eighteen year old clutched the sharpest knives we could find in the kitchen. Each of us on either side of the window.
If a terrorist entered, we would fire the harpoon, and jump on his neck. That was the plan; it was all that we had.
I then took my thirteen year son aside and told him: While me and your brothers are fighting, your job is to get your mother and sister to safety. We planned the escape routes. At the age of 13, he was now a soldier.
We stayed in position for hours that morning, as we heard the helicopters and the shooting nearby. We waited for the invaders, but somehow, they did not come.
Miraculously, Baruch Hashem, Kfar Maimon was saved. We found out about the miracle afterwards. Forty terrorists left Kibbutz Be'eri and made their way to Kfar Maimon. As they we arriving at the gates, a Hamas rocket hit a Tzahal helicopter and forced it to land. Amazingly, neither the pilot, nor the soldiers were harmed. But as the Chayalim evacuated the helicopter, they found the forty terrorists coming from Be'eri, engaged them and succeeded in killing them all. It was a 'nes min ha-shamayim.' Hashem was watching over us.
The following night was the worst of my life. Every noise, every shadow, every whisper. I thought they were coming back.
We spend the night awake, taking turns holding the door of the safe room. After thirty hours in the shelter, we saw another family, a neighbor getting reading to leave. We decided to evacuate with them, and split our two families in two, in case one of the cars was attacked.
As we began driving, we saw hundreds of cars on the sides of the road. I told the children to keep their heads down so that they would be safe. This was true of course, but I also didn't want to them to see what I was seeing; the blood and the the bodies.
When we finally arrived in Kiryat Gat, I told my kids they could sit up in the car. We were anxious and starving. I got to a bakery in the late afternoon and asked them what they had available. The owner looked around and pointed to thirty loaves of bread that were left that day. I took out my wallet “I'll take all of them please.” I have never felt so vulnerable in my life.
It's been three weeks since that day. Every night, my kids have been crying in the hotel room. But I tell them: We are the lucky ones. We’re all alive and we have each other.
They still have many questions.
Amongst the cruelest challenges is the impossible task of Jewish parents talking to our children about this war. Of course, parents in Israel are experiencing this far more acutely than those of us in Chutz La'aretz. But across the world, children are asking their parents “Why do they hate us?” “What does hostage mean?” “What is happening to the little babies that were kidnapped?”
Each child asks according to what they have seen or been exposed to. As parents, we try to shield them from seeing or hearing the horrors. But we also want to keep them safe; stay vigilant; somehow without causing hysteria and trauma. No two kids are the same – each one requires care, concern and a nuanced approach. In general, I highly recommend reaching out to professionals to ensure that your children are not overly and unnecessarily exposed to pain and trauma.
In the deepest way, the way we speak to our children holds all of our fears, hopes and dreams in the balance. We want our children to be safe now. And we want them to feel connected to Klal Yisrael in this time of great need. Yet, we are maintaining the desperate tefillah that this trauma will never be relevant in their lives and futures. We don't want this cloud to cast a shadow over their futures.
Most importantly, we want to ensure that our children can feel confident in knowing that we will always tell them the truth – somehow without causing them any pain or damage.
Tragically, this question is not new to us as a nation. We have survived many such events in the long years of exile. And, to a certain extent, this question is one that arrises every year during the three weeks and the nine days. Do we educate our children to observe these laws and customs? Or perhaps we temper this chinuch with the aspiration that by the time our children are Bnei and Bnos Mitzvah, we will no longer be mourning the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash? The poskim grapple with these considerations.
There are no simple answers to these questions, and many might be tempted to avoid speaking to our kids about this at all. But I would like to suggest that in this particularly complex time, there is an enormous amount of wisdom that we can gain from our children as well.
As adults, we train ourselves look at the world with nuance; but often times, that nuance is is conflated with ego, politics and self-righteous justification.
There is a certain truth that children can offer us in these times: Kids are uniquely positioned to see the world in black and white. They are naturally inclined to define actions as good or evil. This is a perspective that many adults are sorely lacking.
To put it simply: Sometimes things are not that complicated. Sometimes there are people that have chosen to perpetrate evil, and others who are living their lives with love and care and goodness.
There is much to be gained by telling our children and ourselves that Klal Yisrael is fighting a war against evil. Hamas is evil. Kids understand this, and it's valuable for us to say it unequivocally. In talking to our children, we are forced to reduce this conflict to its core: This is war between right and wrong.
Perhaps this is the great life lesson of Sarah Imenu, as the Medrash tells us:
בַּת עֶשְׂרִים כְּבַת שֶׁבַע לְנוֹי, בַּת מֵאָה כְּבַת עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה לְחֵטְא When twenty years old she was like a seven year old girl regarding beauty, and when a hundred years old she was like a twenty year old regarding sin.
Sarah Imenu never lost her childlike appreciation of the beauty of the world. She never became a cynical about the possibility of an amazing future. And thought her life, her distain for sin and evil remained intact. Sarah Imenu never lost sight of what is right and wrong, good and evil, and despite that and all that she saw, she lived a life of hopes, dreams and aspirations.
Hashem should help us all, and all of our children, to emerge from the war intact – physically, emotionally and spiritually.