Shalom Means Peace In Hebrew: Talking with Children in the Wake of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Tragedy

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor & activist

As an educator committed to justice, I continue to think about ways to combat confusion, misinformation, and hate and to pave the way for love, inclusion, and equity. I have the privilege of working with both adults and preschoolers, so I get to think of ways to share information with parents of preschoolers and to consider ways to share developmentally appropriate lessons with three to five year-olds.

Over the past week, a white gunman targeted and murdered two black people while they were grocery shopping in Kentucky. Another white gunman shot and killed eleven Jews while they were praying in their synagogue. We are painfully reminded that hatred is real and that unchecked hatred and white nationalism have dire consequences. I feel compelled to speak out and to teach toward change so I’m doing that in the little community I’m a part of. I started by writing a couple of emails to the families in our community. Within them, I included:

“I‘m in the process of figuring out the best ways to include a direct classroom response to the anti-semitic violence of this past weekend. I’m thinking about what is developmentally appropriate and ways to keep things positive. I hope to shine the light on the outpouring of love and support while naming the hurtful act. I don’t plan to share any details of the violence or say that people were killed. I hope to share a bit more on our blog by the end of this week. If or as you have any thoughts or questions, I’d welcome hearing them.”

As I consider how to best involve families of young children, I am reminded that while we want to shield children from the intensity of harsh things in the world, there is value in engaging directly with our children and emphasizing the actions that people continue to make for peace and justice.

Some children may be the direct targets of hatred or violence; while most children, if not all in our school community are cushioned from much of it. But most children– if not all– will at least pick up pieces of information from current events in the world around them. Young children may notice that their parents are upset, learn from older siblings, overhear a news report, or witness a conversation in the grocery store. They will likely hear something about the hurtful things in our broader community. When we engage directly with children, we can frame the conversation and influence how our young ones think and learn about challenging issues, and we can empower them to take action alongside the countless people who actively seek peace. And when we talk with children about scary or challenging circumstances, we give them the message that we are interested and willing to talk, paving the way for ongoing conversations.

I used this week’s family share to teach the word “shalom”– the Hebrew word for peace–and to share some ideas about what peace includes: “Being gentle, kind, friendly and loving to all people.” I named that we were going to sing a song, “Shalom/Peace,” at circle and wanted to be sure everyone knew what shalom and peace meant prior to our circle time.

At circle, I revisited what we know about peace and said: People all over the country– no matter where they live in the United States–in Portland, Oregon or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania– have been lighting candles and singing and sending peace to everyone. They are doing this for a really sad reason. Instead of pretending to scare people (like we’ve been playing this Halloween season), someone really scared and hurt people. They used their words and they used their body to scare and hurt people who are Jewish. These Jewish people were in their synagogue, praying, and welcoming a baby. Someone came in and scared and hurt them. While our class is learning that it is always important to be gentle, kind and loving, this person was confused and hurtful. They acted out of hate, instead of love. So thousands of people all over our country are saying “No”– It is wrong to hate and wrong to hurt people. And people all over the United States are lighting candles, singing songs about peace and letting the Jewish people who got scared or hurt know that we care about Jews and we care about everyone’s safety.

Then I lit a candle for peace and introduced our new Shalom/Peace song to spread more gentleness, kindness and love. When it was time to blow out the peace candle, a child suggested we all do it together. What a lovely joyful closing to our ritual!

Here’s to continuing to find ways to involve families in peace activism work. Preserving our shared humanity depends on it. 

Takeaways from Teaching Tolerance:

  • “To ignore such an act of violence is to accept it.”
  • We can teach our children “how hate takes hold” and empower them by providing “ways they can join us in fighting hate.”
  • If we don’t talk about “hate-filled moments,” we “normalize” them.
  • Our children need to hear messages of acceptance, love and pluralism in every arena of their lives.

To Learn More

5 Tips for Talking with Children About the Tree of Life Shooting – Anti-Defamation League

How To Talk To Children About Anti-Semitism – PJ Library “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.”

Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide – Southern Poverty Law Center

2 thoughts on “Shalom Means Peace In Hebrew: Talking with Children in the Wake of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Tragedy

  1. Lura Reed says:

    Susan, your post brings me much comfort. I am grateful that children and families at Hawthorne Family Playschool have the opportunity to consider their part in bringing peace to the world, and in saying “No” to hate. On our college campus, we too came together. We chose to write notes of care and support to the Tree of Life synagogue and to learn more about the history and experience of Jewish people. We also signed a big note that we put on our wall about supporting everyone’s right to exist in the world, exactly as they are. It feels meaningful to know that so many of us, all over, are choosing to work together for love and inclusion, especially at times when we are also hurting together over some people’s choices to scare and hurt folks who are different than them.
    With care and solidarity,
    Lura Reed
    Instructor, Human Development Family Sciences Department
    Oregon State University-Cascades

    • Judith Walker says:

      Thank you, Teacher Susan Eisman,for your compassionate, thoughtful wisdom that gently guides our youngest children into a difficult world not of their making. I have always been grateful that Isabel and Caden got their grounding in the arc of justice with you (2004 – 2008), and their parents, as their guides. Shalom 🙏

      Judy Walker, Grandmother

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