Talking to Teens About Israel

“Talking to Teens About Israel” moderator Susan Borison, co-founder of Your Teen Media, and panelists Suzanne Schneps, a clinical psychologist; Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood; and Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, associate director of teen initiatives at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, discuss ways parents can speak to their teenage children about Israel and antisemitism June 3. The virtual event was hosted by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. 

The Jewish Federation of Cleveland hosted a virtual panel where local experts provided advice to parents looking to help their teenage children navigate rising trends of antisemitism and anti-Zionism June 3.

Panelists included Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, associate director of teen initiatives at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights; Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood; and Suzanne Schneps, a clinical psychologist. Susan Borison, co-founder of Your Teen Media, moderated the discussion and question-and-answer session, which was tuned into by 45 devices.

At a time when people’s views are greatly divided regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and social media has become a crowded medium for espousing opinions – especially following the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict, the experts highlighted that teens might be questioning their beliefs on Israel and Judaism.

“The recent conflict in Israel has exposed a sense of disbelief and sadness, that the place they love, the place that they have been told to love ... launched missiles into Gaza, killing children and civilians, even if it wasn’t intended,” Caruso said. “... We have proudly educated and inspired generations of beautiful Jews here. They want to stay Jewish, but they don’t want to have to pick only one side.”

For many teens, the recent conflict birthed feelings of anger and confusion, especially when teens’ social media posts they believed to be innocent and in support of their views received unexpected backlash from friends or followers.

“For a lot of (teens), they are – for possibly the first time – really encountering what it means to be minorities,” Vinokor-Meinrath said. “For some of them, to see that the communities, particularly online but also in-person, that they would have thought were their own, may perhaps not be and they’re having different reactions.”

Schneps noticed Jewish teens have reacted differently to the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict. No matter the reaction, Schneps emphasized that the most important thing parents could do is create a safe space for their teens to talk to them about what’s bothering them.

“They don’t want us to always have the answer,” Schneps said. “If they say they don’t know what to do, then you can impart your great wisdom. But you want first to see where are they coming from, do they want some help?”

If a teen expresses that they’re not comfortable speaking with their parent, Schneps encouraged parents ask their teen who they might feel OK speaking to, like their rabbi, teacher or a JECC connection.

The three experts agreed that as trends of antisemitism continue to increase that it’s imperative teens recognize and call out hate, both in-person and online.

Schneps offered the idea that if a teen receives hate online from a stranger, that the parent and teen come up with a response together that doesn’t incite more drama. If the hate comes from a friend, Schneps believes a parent should try to urge their teen to call that friend and have a conversation about their feelings.

Vinokor-Meinrath said that recognizing antisemitism can be difficult for teens, as it can be clearer to pinpoint “classic” antisemitism like a swastika versus something awkward a friend said that might have been fine had a Jew said it. She asked for teens to turn to their parents or trusted adults to help them process their emotions if they experience hate.

“If something made you uncomfortable as a Jew, that is a legitimate feeling,” Vinokor-Meinrath said. “... I think legitimizing feelings, in this instance, is the first step that we can really take to making ourselves these safe spaces.”

The panelists provided additional resources parents could turn to in order to help their teens process their feelings on Israel and antisemitic experiences, like YouTube channel Unpacked, The Promised Podcast and JECC programming.

Schneps’ final piece was to remind parents that if they have discussions with their children about Israel or any divisive topic, that it’s OK if their children feel differently than they do. What’s important is for parents to remember that their relationship with their children is far more vital than their opposing opinions, which parents can express by outlining their highest value: their unconditional love for their children.

“You do not want this to become the dividing piece between you,” Schneps said. “You want a chance to listen (to each other), because that’s being a team. It’s imperative that you put out there what your highest value is, and you care deeply about it.”

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