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Never too early to teach about prejudice

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Lifestyle

In an era in which division and “othering” are rife, topics like racism and equality can be difficult to discuss with children. Jews are no strangers to discrimination, but how can we broach the subject with our youngsters and ensure that they are sensitive to differences between people?

“The majority of children in our country are aware of differences between themselves and others and, due to our history, are particularly sensitive to differences in race,” says Catherine Boyd, the education manager at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

“While some children are more exposed to ideas and language around identity politics than previous generations, others aren’t able to articulate what they see and feel until they are encouraged and guided.”

Boyd, along with education officer Mduduzi Ntuli and educator Rene Pozniak, make up the education team at the centre, dealing with the subject of prejudice among youngsters. The centre runs an identity activity to help young people articulate their differences and perhaps even their prejudices.

“Of course, family culture is a dominant influence in what they think, but they are as vulnerable to hate speech as adults are,” says Boyd. “That hate speech can be equally reinforced by family, peer pressure, and acts of ‘othering’ they see around them.”

The fact that most Jewish youngsters attend almost exclusively Jewish schools can put them at something of a disadvantage, says Pozniak.

“There is no doubt that the pupils at an all-white, Jewish school lack the opportunity to interact with pupils from another cultural group,” she says. “As a result, this lack of diversity and the limited contact they do have [be it doing sport or any other extra mural] makes it unlikely for it to translate into a meaningful relationship.”

However, many pupils are aware of this gap, she says, shown by many programmes supported by pupils aimed at tikkun olam (repairing the world) like charity collections.

“There is no question that these pupils are familiar with the concepts of prejudice, stereotyping, marginalisation, and ‘othering’. Their in-depth learning about Jewish history, and especially the lessons still being gleaned from the Holocaust experience, have made them acutely aware of diversity and cultural differences,” Pozniak says.

The subject of equality is probably discussed more in schools than in the broader community, Pozniak says, pointing out that there have recently been attempts to correct this.

“The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has cautioned how important it is to be genuinely involved in the broader community, playing our part in healing our nation and being instrumental in it moving in a positive direction,” she says. “Various communal institutions have been vocal in their opposition to any display of discrimination, be it against the Jewish community or any other community.

“Degrees of awareness and subsequent involvement with the issue of equality depend on the generation you’re socialised in. Current school pupils are post-apartheid students, without any first-hand experience of the kind of racial discrimination experienced by their parents and grandparents. They haven’t been tainted by that experience, and are thus more comfortable with other cultures and racial groups, given the opportunity to interact.

“There is always room for improvement, and every opportunity should be sought to interact with as many different people as possible,” Pozniak says.

A good starting point for parents is to talk about their children’s own identities.

“Discuss how they think about themselves, their families, and their communities. In this way, they can begin to understand and appreciate that their own identities are multifaceted and fluid, and that if this is true for them – that they are not defined by a stereotype – then they are encouraged to see others as individuals with multifaceted identities.

“Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is something that can be modelled, practised, and encouraged at home from an early age. This can be done by encouraging curiosity about others, developing communication and listening skills, and challenging prejudice and stereotypes.”

Such interaction can even be encouraged amongst younger children. This is the motivation behind Crayation Nation, a children’s book written by Asif Segal centred on a box of coloured pencils to explain that engaging with people, thoughts, or traditions which are different isn’t a bad thing.

“I tried to find a way to describe a situation in a way that children could relate to,” says Segal. “A box of crayons or pencils is colourful, has different uses for each one of the crayons or pencils, and if combined can create something new that wasn’t originally there.

“To children in general, race or colour makes absolutely no difference at all. It’s in later years once they have been exposed to the thoughts or attitude of the adults around them that the issue becomes more significant.

“I hope that by realising that a box of crayons or pencils has different characters in it, they can understand that they are all there to complement each other, just like in the world around us.”

Discussion between parents and children shouldn’t revolve around race, Segal stresses, pointing out that inequality or intolerance of difference isn’t only about race.

“It’s a worldwide problem that’s manifested in everything from bullying, gender, sexual orientation, tradition, religion, and life choices,” he says. “We should attempt to give children the tools to make the correct choices in life, to allow them not to judge at first sight but keep an open mind.”

Simone Kur, the book’s illustrator, says that discrimination is becoming more of an issue and believes that the book can make a difference to how parents and teachers approach the subject and teach its lessons.

“The world is still very backward when it comes to accepting different people,” she says. “It makes you realise that not everyone is that open-minded about accepting. It seems that now, under the pandemic, people are even less tolerant of each other and are quick to judge.”

Crayation Nation is aimed at teaching children not to judge too quickly when faced with an uncomfortable situation, and to take ideas from others.

“Developing tolerance and striving for equality isn’t just important for children, but it’s easier for them because they’re younger. If everyone took time to see how important it is not to judge others and be tolerant, we would all be a lot better off.”

  • ‘Crayation Nation’ is available on Takealot, at selected Exclusive Books stores, and from Farm Animal Publications.

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Israel

SA’s unique connection to Israel makes Israelis feel at home

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Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut are generally tough days for Israelis in the diaspora as it isn’t easy to experience them properly thousands of kilometres away from Israel.

But in South Africa, many Israelis say it’s easier.

“The first few years in South Africa, I was amazed at how similar Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut felt to how it is in Israel,” says Israeli ambassador Lior Keinan. “I made a point of visiting different communities and schools on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It felt so familiar. They played the same songs and danced the same dances. It was a relief.”

Liat Amar Arran, the local Jewish Agency representative and the director of the Israel Centre, agrees. When she moved here, she thought these particular days would be when she would be most needed with her “personal stories and sense of connection” with Israel. “Instead, I met a community that was already strongly connected and was very involved in commemorating and celebrating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was amazing.”

For South African Jewry, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut showcase their connection with Israel.

“Yom Hazikaron is an incredibly important day when we commemorate those who fell protecting Israel. Without those who have given their lives to keep am Yisrael [the people of Israel] alive, we wouldn’t feel protected here in South Africa,” says South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “It’s really important to realise exactly what the people of Israel have gone through to keep Israel alive.”

For Israelis living here, it’s a lot more personal.

“Being here on Yom Hazikaron has extra special meaning for me,” says Keinan. “I’m fortunate that none of my family has been killed in action. However, one of my best friends who I studied with in high school was killed in the second Lebanon War. Ashi Novik was a South African who moved to Israel. So now, for me to be an ambassador in South Africa, I can look at the memorial of all the South Africans who paid the ultimate price for Israel, and I see the name of my high school friend. When I light a candle for him personally and all those whose names are on the memorial, I feel like I’m closing the circle. I knew him in the past, and now I’m here honouring his memory.”

Habonim Dror Southern Africa shaliach Lior Agiv says learning to appreciate Yom Hazikaron has been a process.

“As a young child, these days of Zikaron and Atzmaut always seemed to be something amorphic. Hearing my father’s stories of all the wars he had taken part in, watching these series and movies on TV, it all remained a bit abstract. As I grew up and my army chapter was getting closer, I started to wonder more about the meaning of these days.

“All these feelings grew much stronger after my army days near Ramallah. Since then, every year, no matter where I’m located, I honour these days by lightning a neshama candle for my fallen friends and try to deepen my knowledge of our wars and fallen ones.”

Batya Shmueli, also a shaliach in South Africa, says, “I was born on the African continent in Ethiopia, and at the age of 11, my family fulfilled our dream of returning to Jerusalem. Returning to Africa as an Israeli to do a mission with my family is closing a huge circle. We will connect with our brothers and sisters and remember the loved ones who fell and sacrificed their lives in various wars for the sake of the people of Israel and future generations,” she says.

“Independence Day is a day in which we stop for a moment and look at the fact that we have a state and a home for the Jewish people,” she says.

Arran says that everyone in Israel knows someone who has been killed, which is why Yom Hazikaron is felt so keenly. “My good childhood friend, Ariel, was killed in the army,” she says. “My brother-in-law lost his entire unit in a helicopter crash. Everyone knows someone that has been killed.”

Lee Salama, a Habonim shaliach in Cape Town, says, “In officer boot camp in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we have a saying, ‘We have to realise that in order for us to be able to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, there were people who had to die.’ And then we have this beautiful transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut and celebrating life.”

Says Polovin, “Yom Ha’atzmaut is an incredible celebration of everything Israel has accomplished in its very short 73 years. No matter where you look, Israel is a ‘light to the nations’ showing the way. Whether it’s technology, medical advancements, or even showing the world how to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, Israel is at the head of the pack.”

Says Keinan, “The beauty of going straight from the sombre day of Yom Hazikaron to the happy day of Yom Ha’atzmaut shows us that from great pain and sorrow can come the greatest joy. The suffering and pain, and the joy and celebration, are really just two sides of the coin.”

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Demystify death for children

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Death is part of life, yet it remains a taboo topic, especially when it comes to children. Yet, with COVID-19 bringing death to our doorstep, it’s vital that parents and children are comfortable with talking about it, says social worker Carin Marcus.

Marcus spoke at a recent event hosted by Nechama Bereavement Services. In introducing her, Nechama Director Rebbetzin Avigail Popack said Marcus had been touched by death from a young age as she lost her father in the Helderberg plane crash. She went on to specialise in counselling in the fields of oncology, palliative care, grief, loss, crisis management, and bereavement.

“We need to demystify death. It’s an unavoidable reality,” said Marcus. “Instead of seeing death only through the lens of fear and vulnerability, we can see it as an amazing teacher that makes us appreciate life and its impermanence.”

The pandemic has been a time of loss and trauma, she said. In addition, games like Fortnite are full of death. It means that children need to have the language to talk about it in a way that suits their developmental stage. “The golden rule is to trust your gut … you know how much information your child can handle.

“Children aren’t homogenous. We need to unpack the capacity they have. Children up to the age of two or three don’t have the concept of death, but they can pick up on an atmosphere and environment, even if they don’t have the language.” This is why it’s important to be aware of the atmosphere one creates around these children if someone has died, Marcus said.

These children may experience a “double loss” when they are older and don’t have a memory of the person who died when they were a baby or toddler. It means that as adults, we have to develop a “memory” of sorts. The child can still form a relationship with who the person was, even if they are gone.

Children from the ages of three to six start to understand the life cycle, but the world is still magical to them. They may “lack an understanding of permanence. So, if they hear that granny has gone to Hashem, they may still expect her to come back,” Marcus said.

Older children have more concrete thinking, and will understand that the person isn’t coming back. They may feel grief, displayed in regressive behaviour, separation anxiety, or struggling to sleep. They start to understand the universality of death, that “it can happen to me”.

Most adolescents need to be included fully in discussions and rituals around death, as they are at the stage where they need to feel included and are contemplating bigger questions about life and death.

No matter how old the child is, “the information we use must be honest and factual”, Marcus said, pointing out that euphemisms often create confusion for children. For example, if you say, “They lost their granny,” a child may say, “Well, why don’t they just go find her?” And if you say, “Granny’s soul is with Hashem,” a child may confuse it with sole (the fish). If we say, “She is up in heaven,” children may expect to see her in the sky, or when they go on an aeroplane. So, we must be careful with the language we use. “Even for adults, it’s hard to use the proper words, but we need to do so,” Marcus said.

We must use moments of life and death to develop skills. For example, if the child’s school has a farmyard and a rabbit dies, instead of rushing to replace it so children don’t notice, use the moment to acknowledge feelings and develop a ritual around death. Looking at the seasons and nature – the way leaves fall off the trees, or how animals and pets die – are also ideal opportunities to discuss the impermanence of life.

Even though it’s scary, parents need to impress on their children that no question is out of bounds. In addition, let children guide you in how much information you give them. “It’s like building a Lego city – one block at a time. As they develop, they will learn more.”

Parents need to be role models and show that it’s okay to cry or grieve, that these are “natural responses to life”, explain why they are sad, and that they will be okay.

Parents can describe grief like a wound. At first, it’s raw and open, but as time passes, it heals – the scar is still there, but it’s less painful. They can also explain the idea of the body and the soul by putting their hand in a glove – when the hand leaves the glove, the soul has left the body. In explaining death, give factual information about how the body shuts down and no longer works and that they cannot come back to life.

It’s also important to explain what a cemetery is, and to emphasise that it’s a serene place, unlike the scary cemeteries depicted in stories or films. When it comes to funerals, explain to children what will happen, and leave it up to them to decide if they want to attend. If not, there should be no guilt.

It’s meaningful to allow children to describe heaven as they imagine it, Marcus said, and this can evolve as they get older. It’s also important to engage children in rituals of remembering. In addition, if their friend has had a family member who has died, it’s important to emphasise that they shouldn’t be scared of that child.

One of the hardest moments as a parent is when a child asks, “Will you die?” The best way to respond to this is that everyone dies, Marcus said, “but I hope to live long, and I’m trying to stay healthy so that I can”. It’s also vital to assure a child that death is never their fault. An even harder moment is when a child asks if they will die, or says that they don’t want to die. “You can promise that you will do everything to help them be healthy and live a long life. Help them focus on the present, and the fact that they will achieve all their dreams.”

Sometimes, people want to wait to tell a child that someone has died, Marcus said, but the risk is that someone else might tell them – and in the wrong way. Rather, “try not to delay, but find the right moment. In therapy, people often say they never forget how they were told someone had died. It’s a moment they hold onto, and it’s very painful if it’s not by a person you trust.”

While adults often feel they are “drowning in grief”, children are more resilient and “jump in and out of puddles” of sadness. “I always think of life like the Shabbat box that the kids bring home on a Friday and return on a Monday. We need to treat life like that. It’s a gift, but we’re eventually going to give it back. So treasure it while we have it.”

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Lifestyle

Lockdown opens world stage for determined teen

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Like many other teens, 15-year-old student Jevan Sifrin found himself with too much time on his hands under the hard lockdown last year. But instead of spending endless hours watching Netflix, he decided to use the time to improve his fitness.

That little decision has led to astounding opportunities, showing that committing to a goal can take you places you never imagined.

“Jevan went from being bored to being selected to attend an acting programme in New York or Los Angeles this year, and potentially setting off to New York for modelling and acting next year as well,” says his mother Taryn Sifrin.

He started working out during lockdown because “I had been playing rugby at school and at Pirates Rugby Club, and I was motivated to work out to become bigger and do better at rugby after lockdown. I also had a lot of time on my hands,” he says.

“Jevan starting training with calisthenics. We helped to equip a home gym for him, and he trained for hours every day, totally self-motivated,” says Taryn. “Calisthenics is training using your own body weight, and anyone can do it, anywhere,” says Jevan.

“He decided to start an Instagram account featuring his training and fitness videos, and was eventually noticed by a scout for talent agency 33 & Me in Illovo.

“We scheduled a meeting for January when we were back from holiday. They were so impressed with his interview and look, they signed him up immediately and scheduled his first portfolio photoshoot,” says Taryn.

“It was there that he was noticed by Elsubie Verlinden, who is a director at the agency, and she suggested that he audition before directors of the New York Film Academy and apply to attend their summer holiday acting programme in July/August. He had a great audition, and we were informed that he had got into the programme and can choose to attend either in Los Angeles or New York. We have applied for New York. This is a huge achievement, and we are so grateful to Elsubie for arranging his audition.”

“It’s a three-week acting programme taught by lecturers who have taught many famous graduates in the field,” says Jevan.

He has also been accepted to perform in the International Art Talent Showcase in September, which is judged by a large panel of influential people mainly from New York. If he makes it through that, he will be back in New York in June next year for acting and modelling.

“I would never have imagined that working out during lockdown would’ve taken me this route,” says Jevan. “The first goal was to train for rugby, then aim to become a Navy Seal one day, or to go international with my calisthenics training. I would never have believed it would take me on the modelling and acting path.”

Fitting in training isn’t easy for a busy teen, but he makes it a priority. His daily routine begins with a cold shower, a healthy nourishing breakfast, and then he goes to school. He does most of his homework at school, so when he comes home, he can eat lunch and weight train for about two hours. He then researches and practices monologues, model walks, and poses. Then he does calisthenics and goes for a run for about an hour. “Most of the auditions are online these days, which helps save time,” Jevan says. “I can catch up school work on the weekends.”

His audition with the New York Film Academy “was nerve wracking and scary”, he says, “but I thrived under the pressure, and did my best. Normally, directors come out here from New York to interview potential candidates, but this year, we had to do it on Zoom. I’m hoping to be able to get to New York to attend the course in person, but if not, I’ll be able to do it online.”

His ultimate goal is to attend the New York Film Academy after school, learn all about film and the entertainment industry, and hopefully be able to play his dream role, the Joker.

His advice to other teens wanting to reach similar goals is “to work harder than others, do the same thing every day – eat, train, and focus the same way every single day. If done for hours consistently, it will bring success.”

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