Children go to their parents when they have a question, especially if they encounter something new. They might meet a friend at school or reach a section of their history textbook that introduces them to Judaism. They might wonder about the holidays their friends are celebrating in September, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
If you want to provide your kids with a well-informed, culturally sensitive understanding of Jewish history and culture, consider following a few of these steps.
Here are 8 ways to discuss Jewish history and culture with your kids
1. Provide the definition of Judaism
If you’re wondering how to talk to your kids about Jewish culture, you don’t need to take a class or be an expert. It’s always best to start with the basics. Kids of all ages can learn the definition of Judaism to form the foundation of their education.
It’s the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, which was established nearly 4,000 years ago and continues in practice to this day. Just like people practicing Christianity read the Bible, followers of Judaism read texts from ancient prophets they believe to have communicated with God to establish traditions, culture and laws.
Over 14.7 million people practice Judaism worldwide because the religion has had so much time to spread across the world. Jewish followers adhere to the belief that God established a covenant with them, wants to reward their good deeds and will come again in the form of a Messiah. This ideology actually formed the basis for Christianity—however, those who practice Judaism believe the Messiah hasn’t arrived yet. Believers attend synagogue, follow Scriptures and take advice from rabbis while they wait for a messianic age of truth and justice.
2. Connect it with preexisting experiences
Children may have an easier time understanding a new concept by connecting it with things they’ve already experienced. Think of it like a comparative religion course you might have taken in college—introduce the new religion from the perspective your kids already bring to the table. If your family participates in a religion, compare similar beliefs or practices.
Christian parents can point out how Jewish people read the Tanakh and the Torah, which have many of the same books as the Christian Bible’s Old Testament. They could also mention how the same Abraham from the Old Testament was the founder of the Jewish religion.
Muslim families also share a religious history with Abraham since Islam is also an Abrahamic religion. Both beliefs adhere to the teachings of one God and take lessons from prophets within their sacred texts.
Teaching cultural sensitivity by creating a context grounded in familiarity is a great way to learn how to talk to your kids about different religions. Even if your family isn’t religious, kids may have learned about other faiths from movies or know people who practice similar beliefs.
3. Talk about religious identity
Religion can shape a person’s identity when it’s a large part of their life, but it’s difficult for children to understand that if they’re unsure about their own. While researching how to talk to your kids about Jewish history, identify why these beliefs matter to Jewish people.
You can mention how people use religious texts like the Torah to form their moral guidelines. It offers a sense of community, shapes how you interact with other people and provides a purpose for your life. These concepts may help kids understand why complicated ideals and abstract concepts matter so much to believers, even if they don’t share those beliefs.
4. Research questions together
It’s OK not to know the answers right away. Parents always want to clarify questions and provide guidance, but no one knows everything. If you’re unsure how to answer your child’s question, invite them to research the answer with you. It’s an easy way to understand how to talk to your kids about Jewish culture because you’ll figure it out together.
5. Consider their age
Searching for a picture of a Torah or reading passages together is easy, but discussing other parts of Jewish history may be more difficult. There are many dark moments when Jewish people have suffered because of their beliefs—including the Holocaust, which occurred in such recent history. Toddlers and elementary school students may not be ready to process that level of pain yet.
Depending on the context, you may put the subject aside until later, give a gentle explanation without unnecessary details, or discuss the full situation. If it’s necessary to talk about dark subjects now, use specific procedural steps to approach the topic with caution.Parents can talk about issues like the Holocaust by proceeding with conversations centered around:
- The importance of tolerance and inclusion
- The destruction of prejudice and hate speech
- The necessity of learning history to prevent its repetition
The same steps can assist parents who need to talk about complicated subjects like antisemitism, too. As you learn how to talk to your kids about the Holocaust and related topics, don’t be nervous about pulling back. You can always return to the conversation if anything’s too overwhelming for your child. It may take them more time to process the past and understand why it relates to the present world.
6. Use helpful tools
Visualization is a critical tool when establishing a cultural education for kids. You can figure out how to talk to your kids about Jewish history by reading picture books together that keep their attention while demonstrating the subject matter. If your kids are older, you can encourage them to read independently, a well.
Books are always a valuable resource for helping children understand difficult topics—research and provide some age-appropriate reading that can provide answers you might not have yourself. Kids often take their education to heart when they learn about things from characters of the same age.
7. Listen to their feedback
Sometimes children and teens ask a quick question before heading off to school or going to sleep. Other times, they mention something while you’re eating dinner because it’s a setting that promotes deeper discussions. Consider how and when your child asks about Jewish history and culture to determine how deeply they want to dive into the topic.
Parents should also pay attention to their child’s response. If they get uncomfortable and demonstrate nervous behaviors like nail chewing or hair twisting, it could be time to ease back. They might fidget because they’re bored with a long answer to a question they thought would only take a few seconds to answer. Listening or looking for feedback will help the conversation happen in the best way for your child to receive it.
8. Share the holidays
There are plenty of ways for kids to experience Jewish culture. You might have a friend who wants to throw a Passover celebration. Ask them if your family can attend so your curious kids can learn more about the history behind the holiday.
If you have a Jewish partner who wants to attend a Hanukkah party in December, take the whole family. That way, your kids can understand it’s not the same as Christmas and has unique traditions of its own.
While you decide how to talk to your kids about different religions, try to find ways for them to experience things outside of textbooks. They’ll remember things more vividly if they lived them while they learned them.
Provide a Jewish history and culture education
Talking about Jewish history and culture with your kids may seem complicated, but these steps make it easier. Consider aspects like their age, education level and motivations for learning about the religion. By researching and becoming educated yourself, you’ll find the best ways to introduce new concepts and beliefs, no matter your kids’ ages and backgrounds.
A version of this story was originally published on Sept. 3, 2021. It has been updated.