Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Our oldest child has reached the age where he is eligible to go to overnight camp for the first time, and we have been giving a lot of thought as to when would be the right time for a child to leave home. We know firsthand that camp is an amazing utopia where 24/7 joyous Judaism is the expectation, but it is normal to think about when the right age to expose our children to a new loving community outside their home and family is.
Conversely, I’ve found we are not as thorough when it comes to judging when to expose our children to some other important life lessons and experiences. Like many other children, my kids learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim. A few years ago, when my eldest was in kindergarten, he shared with me what he had learned about this ancient holiday. Haman’s punishment for attempting genocide was to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop. He added with a smile that this was his favorite part of the story.
This year on Purim, like every other year, I will try to fulfill the commandment to mistake the blessing of Mordechai with the curse of Haman – the only day of the year on which we are commanded to not differentiate between good and evil. But truthfully, while Purim is clearly a story of survival and joy, it is told against the backdrop of hate and anti-Semitism. Unfortunately in our society, a presence of “evil” or hate is expected; Haman is a stock character in our history. As the adage goes, “What is the definition of an anti-Semite? It is someone who hates Jews more than they are supposed to.” It is astounding to realize that the expectation of anti-Semitism has made us fulfill the commandment of mixing up Mordechai and Haman all year-long.
I am thankful that my young son was not yet taught of Haman and his sons being put to death. But, what is the right age to tell your child about the history and existence of anti-Semitism? It is a curse to think that anti-Semitism is a normal part of our world. It is a blessing to live in an environment like Jewish camp that loves you and cherishes and celebrates your identity. It’s common to sit down to discuss the appropriate age to send one’s child to summer camp for the first time. But if we are willing to put such thought into whether they are ready to enter a new community- a community that will provide them with love, independence, pride, skills, and fun- shouldn’t we give at least as much thought to when and how to expose our children to the reality of and presence of anti-Semitism in our history?
We live in a time of freedom, but we can never forget that this freedom comes at a price. We need to make sure the confusion of Purim is the exception and not the rule. It scares me to think that my children might grow up without strong memories of knowing a survivor of the Shoah, (Holocaust). How will they understand the horrors of anti-Semitism without trivializing it? We need to confront the idea of evil with our children beyond making bad people “pick up the poop.”