Published on November 28th, 2016 | by Danya Ruttenberg3
PARENTING FOR THE RESISTANCE: Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg Takes One First Step by What She Packs for School Lunch
Every morning this year, I’ve been tucking a note into my 7-year-old’s lunchbox. They’ve mostly been silly rhyming poems about boogers and underwear, with the occasional fart or shoe-eating making an appearance. It’s one way that I try to stay connected to him, to offer him some love while he’s living the parts of his life that happen away from me.
But now everything is different.
A lot has changed in the last few weeks. Even setting aside the massive impact that the impending Trump presidency will have on our policies and the lives of many, hateful incidents are up—over 700 since the election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than in the wake of 9/11. Physical attacks, graffiti, and verbal assaults have become more and more widespread. Racists and homophobes have been empowered, as have their children. There have been widespread reports of incidents happening at school; girls as young as 10 having their vaginas grabbed because their male classmates say, “if the president can do it, so can they.” 5th graders chanting, “Build the wall! Build the wall!” at lunch. Junior high school students forming a physical wall to keep their Latino classmates from getting to their lockers. High school students bringing “deportation letters” to their peers. High school students calling their Black classmates “ape” and the n-word, and leaving graffiti with the same words. Children of various ages, at various schools, pulling off their classmates’ hijabs. Kindergarteners—kindergarteners!—telling their classmates that they’re going to be deported or rounded up.
As a white woman committed to pluralism and tolerance, and as a rabbi committed to my tradition’s mandate to care for the vulnerable among us, do not feel that I have the luxury of continuing to raise my children as I have been. It’s not enough to just talk about being an upstander, an ally, a fighter of bullies, hoping that my kids soak up my values over the slow stretch of time. I need to train them to take action now. To intervene now. To protect their classmates and the culture of the school if, God forbid, there’s a need.
We live in a particularly blue part of a blue state, and the school my 7-year-old attends is both racially and economically diverse. But we’ve already learned that we can’t take refuge in the notion that “it can’t happen here.” And fundamentally, I don’t know how quickly this country will change once Trump takes office, or what America will be like when he’s done with it.
So it feels urgent to help my children grow in bravery, empathy, caring, and sensitivity to injustice as quickly as possible. I’ve always taken them to protests and helped them to unpack history, the news, and their daily experiences, but I’ve recently figured out another potentially impactful, concrete thing that I can do.
I told my 7-year-old that he had a job waiting for him in his lunchbox, and that it was really, really important that he do what it said, and that it’d probably even be fun for him.
The note in his lunchbox on Thursday read, in full: “My dear boy—Today, find a kid who looks lonely and invite them to play with you. Love you! Mommy.”
His lunch notes now are tasks. Every day, I ask him to take an initiative in his school community, to help him develop the skills necessary to resist the toxic culture shift that’s already underway.
He has recess after lunch, and I figure most of his practice will happen there. I haven’t figured out all of his tasks, but I know that some of them will involve asking a friend how they’re doing today; going up and saying hi to someone he doesn’t know; making friends with someone who seems different from him in some way (his friends are already pretty diverse, but more practice is more practice); drawing himself as a superhero with superpowers to fight evil; doing something kind for someone, doing something brave. Of course, every day I’ll be asking him about his tasks and talking through challenges with him, and helping him think through how he could handle a tricky situation better. And we’ll talk a lot about how he can intervene if he sees someone being treated unfairly. That’s the daily task, the everyday task.
Even as anti-Semitism is on the rise now, it’s likely that my son’s whiteness will continue to offer him certain privileges in an America that’s still all too racist. It’s my responsibility as an adult to intervene and stop hate, and to create a more inclusive society for all of us—and I’m hoping that these notes can be one other way to help my kid strengthen his own ability to be a proactive force for good in the world—this year, over the next four years, and for the rest of his life.
God knows we need as much help as possible standing up for justice.