When There Are No Words: Talking to Children About the Israel-Hamas War and Antisemitism

December 1, 2023

Sivan Zakai

During this period of trauma and heightened concern related to the Israel-Hamas war and growing antisemitism, Jewish children have been grappling with how to process the terrible things happening in the world and need support from the adults in their lives.

Those who work with, or care for, Jewish children—whether they be parents, grandparents, guardians, educators, or clergy—are themselves struggling to understand these tragic events and are trying to figure out how to balance their own emotions while simultaneously addressing the needs of the children in their lives.

Dr. Sivan Zakai, the Sara S. Lee Associate Professor of Jewish Education at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a thought leader in Jewish education with expertise in Israel education, has emerged as a “go-to” expert for those engaged in this difficult balancing act.

HUC Connect: Supporting Jewish Children and Families in a Time of Crisis from HUC-JIR on Vimeo.

“Jews around the world have watched with horror as the tragic events in Israel and Gaza have unfolded in recent days,” Dr. Zakai wrote in a recent issue of the Jewish Journal. “As we worry and pray and watch from afar, Jewish adults in the Diaspora have been left in an unenviable bind: there are no words adequate for this situation, and yet we must speak about the events of the moment—and we must do so with children no less.”

Dr. Zakai’s experience in Israel education includes serving as the Director of the Children’s Learning About Israel Project, of the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University and serving as Co-Director of Project ORLIE: Research and Leadership in Jewish Education, which provides professional development opportunities for those who teach about Israel. Her research for her most recent book, My Second Favorite Country: How American Jewish Children Think About Israel (NYU Press, 2022 – winner of the 2022 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity), has provided her with unique insights concerning how to discuss current events—including the Israel-Hamas war and antisemitism–with American Jewish children.

Over the past few weeks, Dr. Zakai has been an in-demand speaker, writer, and professional development workshop leader about talking to children about Israel and antisemitism.  She has discussed what is needed to support Jewish children and families at this critical time, has outlined best practices for listening to and speaking with children, and has discussed the ways in which Jewish institutions and organizations are contributing to these efforts.

Recent Media Appearances include:

10/9 Kveller 

The unfolding tragedy in Israel is hard to comprehend, but every child deserves an age-appropriate and honest conversation. Dr. Zakai shares how parents can talk with their children about the current situation in Israel. Read more.

10/11 NPR

Dr. Zakai spoke with NPR about how to talk with children about the current situation in Israel. “It’s important for parents and guardians to know that it’s OK if they don’t have all the answers… Children have a beautiful ability — one that adults sometimes lack — to look head on in the face of violence and still believe in the bottom of their hearts in the future possibility of peace and of coexistence and of resolution to this conflict.” Read more.

10/11 Jewish Journal

Dr. Zakai writes to guide educators, clergy, and parents about how to speak to children about current events in Israel, “Children need adult guidance in helping them understand both the context and the consequences of violent current events. Yet adults who offer that guidance must do so without undermining the magic of childhood.” Read more.

10/12 NPR

Dr Zakai was interviewed in this episode of NPR’s Life Kit on how to talk to children about the violence in Israel and Gaza. Read more.

11/20 PJ Library

Dr. Zakai shares a 3-step process about how to approach children’s big questions and why listening to children’s questions is often more important than giving children specific answers to those questions. Dr. Zakai is a social scientist who studies Jewish children’s ideas and beliefs about Israel and has studied children’s big and difficult questions during every Israel-Gaza war since 2012. Read more.